There are not many sure things in this world. It’s not even guaranteed that the sun will rise in the morning, and if you start to watch Roland Emmerich films too often then you may start to not take your life for granted. Jacques Audiard may fast be becoming something (one) that can truly be relied on. Since Read My Lips in 2001 to A Prophet eight years later and now on to the magnificent Rust and Bone, Audiard is producing cinema of such stunning quality that it becomes an exciting prospect to begin thinking about where he will go next. He is an exciting storyteller who verges on the fantastical at times but with help from his regular director of photography Stephane Fontaine, keeps his tales firmly planted in the real. His ability to balance a story and get the best out of the magnificent actors in Rust and Bone is what makes it one of the most powerful pieces of cinema released this year.
Subverting the critical desire for realism with romantic elements is one reason why Audiard is fast becoming an important name in cinema. While Rust and Bone is melodrama to the core, it is also a gritty and hard-hitting tale of poverty and the extremes to which it can push people. Tender scenes of love are followed by brutal bouts of street fighting. Audiard is nothing if not daring. Going against the art-house grain and still seeking their approval is a bold move but it seems to come naturally to the audacious Audiard.
Rust and Bone is adapted from the short stories of the same name by Canadian author Craig Davidson. It follows two tales which become intertwined sumptuously and somewhat naturally. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his son Sam (Armand Verdure) move in with Ali’s sister after leaving a troubled situation with Sam’s mother. They have escaped a life of relative poverty but things are not much more lavish with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) in her humble abode. Ali is a young man full of aggression and energy. He channels it in his job as a bouncer and his organised street-fighting but also in outbursts of anger against his family, sometimes violently. He becomes a rather unlikeable man during much of the film, which is also a testament to the superb performance of Belgian actor Schoenaerts. His world is dirty and shady, full of untrustworthy characters and seedy backhand dealings. Schoenaerts plays a simple man very well, exposing all his frailties with spectacular honesty.
Stephanie (Marion Cottilard) is from a completely different universe. She is a trainer of orca whales at a nearby marine fun park. Although her life seems far more comfortable, she encounters Ali as she is assaulted at a nightclub where she was looking for release, to be watched by men, to excite them. She looks to recapture her prime. Her world of whales is tinged with a faint melancholy, the beautiful shots of these majestic creatures providing the audience with cheap thrills is otherworldly. She subsequently suffers a terrible accident performing with the whales and her legs are amputated below the knee, changing her live irrevocably. All her power is removed; her power to beguile men and to control colossal oceanic mammals evaporates with the loss of part of her body. Her spirit is broken and in an hour of desperation she calls Ali. He becomes what she needs. His honesty and brutish charm leave her no time to languish in self-pity. Stephanie also instils a potent new vigour in Ali, summed up in what could be a saccharine laced fight scene but proves a rather moving turning point. Their relationship is satisfying but exasperating, a classic case of not sensing what is right under your nose.
What is on show here is that it is entirely possible to make a rich, thoughtful film that is also entirely romantic. Although life is rarely like it is in Rust and Bone, it can be, and there is nothing wrong with an overtly starry-eyed gloss on what is a rock hard film at the core. The magic and enchantment of cinema is alive and well in the hands of Jacques Audiard, from time to time a break from the mundane is needed and Rust and Bone is just that. A dazzling, wonderful montage of pain and redemption, love and hurt, anger and tenderness, I think there is plenty of room for such awesome exploration.
As Stephanie sits on her balcony facing out over the sea, her expression is a mix pain and determination. She defiantly begins to execute the routine she performed with the whales. Her power and determination, powerfully swelling emotion, she has begun to fight back. Ali has given her the strength to start again. Cotillard resplendently conveys subtle and mixed mood without saying a word, she is an actress at the very top of her profession, making an expression of suffering and torment look all too natural. The sumptuously framed relationship between Ali and Stephanie is found as they lie together, talk together. It can be cold; when Ali tells Stephanie to call him and he will let her know if he is “operational” for sex, the simple animal traits of the man can be seen. However his unemotional foundation is the spark that ignites Stephanie to free herself from the loss of her legs and rediscover life.
Audiard deftly unifies their relationship with visceral fight scenes and intermingles the often difficult relationship Ali has with his family to create a typically French mood of anguish and tenderness. His film is opulent combination of striking unforgettable images and hazed dreams. He intertwines Stephanie’s broken body with Ali’s at the peak of physical fitness, a striking image as she lies on top of him, exposing her tattooed legs to remind her of which leg is which.
The film fades and flashes, sights and sounds are heightened and silenced evoking the magical and ever changing nature of life and memory. Rust and Bone is stunning and compelling, a magnificent romance and a hard-hitting real life drama. Although the premise may seem unrealistic, Audiard gets away with it. He even gets away with incorporating a Katy Perry song into the mix, although possibly a bad choice, it doesn’t matter. Rust and Bone is the work of an auteur and master of cinema, a hauntingly poignant and affecting film, just another masterpiece to put on the shelf for Audiard.
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