Rust and Bone, the new film from the superb French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, is a fascinating exercise in melodrama, telling a Lifetime-primed broken-bodied love story with a hard-hitting artistry that often keeps sentimentality at bay. It’s sometimes even an upsetting approach on Audiard’s part, because the two leads of his busted-up relationship — broken-down ex-boxer Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and orca-whale trainer Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), who’s just lost her legs in a horrendous accident — are so impeccably pitched and performed that all we want to see is them together, sharing their bodies, enveloped in carnal magic.
But Audiard, in adapting bits and pieces of Craig Davidson’s grinding short-story collection of the same name, complicates the scenario to prolong their coming-together. When Audiard first introduces us to Ali, he does so with the rhythmic hymns of Bon Iver, and we see Ali as a homeless wanderer, walking up and down the streets with nothing but his gym bag and his five-year-old son (Armand Verdure). For food, they hop on buses and pick up scraps off the ground. Ali shoplifts, too. But when a bouncer job in a local nightclub opens up, Ali recognizes an opportunity for some semblance of stability, and he sets up camp at his sister’s (Corinne Masiero) place. He hasn’t seen her in years.
It’s at the club where Ali first meets Stéphanie. She’s just been in a fight, and when Ali finds her, she’s bleeding from the nose. He offers to drive her home. In the car, Ali inquires about the altercation, and wonders if it had something to do with the way Stéphanie was dressed. When she asks Ali how exactly he thinks she is dressed, he tells her, straight-up, that she looks “like a whore.” This is a man who’s a deadbeat when it comes to social finesse, and this is one of the first major signs we get of that. What’s brilliant about the Schoenaerts performance is that he plays Ali as a clueless piece of meat. To him, he was just telling Stéphanie the reality of the situation.
The next day, we see Stéphanie at Marineland, her place of work. Audiard gives us Katy Perry’s “Firework,” another paradoxically appropriate soundtrack choice, as Stéphanie goes about getting the whales to perform for a live crowd. It’s not long, though, until the accident strikes, and we get a shot of Stéphanie underwater, blood sliding away from her body like smeared paint. In an absolutely crushing follow-up scene, Stéphanie wakes up in the hospital, barely conscious, and not yet aware of the disappearance of her legs. Can you imagine an actress being given such an assignment? I can’t even fathom how Cotillard approached this scene, but the way she plays it is heart-stopping, as if the discovery doesn’t send her into rivers of tears but rather an immediate state of catatonia.
She calls Ali a couple of days later, because what else is she going to do? He comes over, they talk briefly, and he suggests that they go outside to the beach. He asks her if she wants to swim, and she looks at him the way we’ve been looking at him all along: “Do you realize what you’re saying?” she says. But Stéphanie realizes that perhaps this kind of treatment is exactly what she needs. These scenes on the water are literally some of the brightest I’ve seen recently, with Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine pushing the sun into the frame as Ali carries Stéphanie into the water. This happens elsewhere in the film, too, and it’s another example of Audiard challenging the genre in potentially overbearing ways: Ali and Stéphanie brighten up each other’s lives, so why not cut loose and use the sun to show it?
Rust and Bone is very much a physical film, in keeping with the spirit of Davidson’s writing. (Here’s a telling excerpt, from the titular story of Davidson’s collection: “The skin above my eyes comes apart, soft meat tearing away from the deeply seamed scar tissue. Blood sprays in a fine mist. I blink away red and smack him in the kidneys.”) A subplot of the film has Ali returning to his fighting days by battling people in abandoned street-lots for money. Blood pours out from Ali’s face as he gets kicked, punched, and elbowed, but he keeps going, and Stéphanie, his watchful guardian, keeps watching. These are some of the scenes where Schoenaerts is most alive, making Ali a specimen of strength, rage, and anger. It’s a magnetism Stéphanie is attracted to, because it gives her a sort of vicarious life. It’s a film about the control of the body over the mind, in some ways.
Audiard is coming off his most successful film to date, the Oscar-nominated A Prophet, his sweeping, punishing, dripping-with-grit drama about prison culture and one man’s (Tahar Rahim) rise within it. But Rust and Bone has much more in common with one of his earlier films, Read My Lips, about a nearly-deaf secretary (Emmanuelle Devos) who strikes up a relationship with a violent ex-con (Vincent Cassel). Like that film, Rust and Bone pairs up a physically impaired woman with a physical imposing man, and then examines the results. There’s an intriguing difference, though: Whereas Devos’s character in Read My Lips was timid, both sexually and socially, Cotillard’s Stéphanie is a bit more confident and energized. She has a resolve about her — and a potent stare, too — that Devos’s character didn’t have on her own.
What’s amazing about Rust and Bone is the interaction between Ali and Stéphanie, and the way Audiard balances the emotional extremes of the story. The film begins on a warm beach and ends on a chilly patch of ice, and, in between, we get a series of scarring events that nevertheless pales in comparison to the flame that ignites when these two people are together. There’s a scene early on in Stéphanie’s apartment where Ali packs a bowl of ice to cool an injury, as he must’ve done a thousand times in his fighting days. Rust and Bone as a whole sort of plays like that, covering up old wounds with newer, harsher ones. By the end of the film, no one’s body is left unscathed, and it feels like there will never be a day without ice-packs or large bandages. But at least these people have each other’s company.