If I say I find it a bit hard to take Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone entirely seriously, I mean it as a compliment. Unfolding almost like a modern-day fairy tale, it’s built around two bruised characters, each driven by a fraught negotiation between their inner and outer lives. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a trainer of killer whales, performing in the Antibes. She meets Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single father with a difficult past, during a blow-up at a nightclub where he’s working as a bouncer. Soon afterwards, there’s an accident, and Stephanie’s legs are both severed above the knee. Some months later, out of hospital but depressed and barely functioning, she calls Ali. Their relationship zigs and zags, becoming sexual but not always clearly a love story, or one that can seemingly reach a stable outcome.
Rust and Bone
Audiard’s last film, Un prophete, was a prison drama, as narratively meaty as The Godfather, with lots of muscular confrontations and interactions, and extremely intimate, albeit sporadic, violence. Rust and Bone occasionally occupies similar territory, in particular through Ali’s increasing immersion in unregulated fighting. But the physicality broadens out here into a wider, almost metaphysical preoccupation with sensation and contour – of bodies, relationships, souls. Ali’s almost overwhelmingly solidity (Schoenarts wouldn’t need much digital tweaking to cut it as a cartoon supervillain) enters into a visual dance with Stephanie’s beautiful but maimed body (and even though this – at various points depicted in swimsuits, or completely naked - is a product of digital tweaking, the film would be an answered prayer for a certain kind of fetishist), with the overwhelming bulk of the orca – darkly mysterious for all their willingness to tolerate certain human whims – and at times, with interspersed patterns of dark floating particles, suggesting a return to the elemental.
Un prophete’s major impact, in my mind, lay in its implications for a Europe in which the old guard’s power becomes increasingly hollow and formal, a vestige of past glories, plainly unsuited to the complexities of the new economy. This concern carries over into Rust and Bone too, through an unstinting and often refreshingly specific portrayal of what it takes for Ali, and his sister with whom he lodges, to put a life together. But the film’s main preoccupations lie elsewhere. In an interview, Audiard talked about the “clash between realism and stylization” that governed the writing, elaborating: “You had constantly to be looking for an equilibrium. If it's too realistic, it's boring. If it's too stylized, you don't believe it." His co-writer added: "What attracted us to the short stories (by Canadian author Craig Davidson) was the universe they described, a universe of catastrophe – a world where people just have their body left to sell. The characters were normal people, but their destiny is magnified by accidents."
The Love Story as Hero
When I say I can’t take the film entirely seriously, I mean something like this, that I could imagine Audiard deliberately sketching out a narrative that might easily be mocked for relative predictability (and indeed, that’s what some reviewers did) and then setting out step by step to enhance, challenge, or thwart our perception of it – in the ways I’ve mentioned already, or by leaving out the expected connective tissue, or simply by making his film shimmer to a point that we float on something close to pure sensation. The comment about too much realism being “boring,” taken objectively, is a bit strange for such a director, but speaks to Audiard’s desire on this occasion to set aside seriousness (at least of the potentially strained variety) and to create a unique filmic space, at once identifiable and familiar, and yet somehow fantastic and ungraspable.. His co-writer comments that “when we were writing Rust and Bone, we said the hero this time would be the love story itself” – another comment that doesn’t make much sense if taken literally, but by the same token warns us against taking anything in the film too much at face value.
I was unenthusiastic a few weeks ago about David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and that movie occurs to me again as a point of contrast. Despite Russell’s status in some places as a “master of chaos,” his film feels wearily pre-programmed and suffused in Hollywoodian notions of pain, confession, seduction, and human interaction generally; there’s never much sense that he’s inspired by his actors, except insofar as they have what it takes to deliver his archly clever dialogue. Rust and Bone (the title of which, by the way, is meant to evoke “the flavour of being punched in the face...the blood filling the mouth, the splintered jaw”) in contrast has nothing that sticks in my mind as clever dialogue – Ali couldn’t express himself much more simply, and Stephanie, we assume, holds back accordingly. But consider a small example, about halfway through the film, after Stephanie has obtained artificial legs, and seems to derive increasing pleasure not just from the contrast with being in a wheelchair, but from the opportunity they allow her to create a persona – it’s notable that she often dresses to emphasize the metal struts rising out of her shoes, even though they could easily be covered. Just as part of the regular give and take, Ali calls her “Robocop,” and although it’s not much of a joke, her pleasure in it is palpable, as a confirmation of an identity that doesn’t deny her new reality, but isn’t limited by it.
At this moment, and at many others in the film, Marion Cotillard is simply indispensable – I don’t know if there’s a current lead actress who better embodies and deploys what they call star quality, although I suppose she may be too mysterious and tough-minded to consistently capture mass audiences. In one of her first films, Arnaud Desplechin’s 1996 My Sex Life…, she appeared only in a brief flashback, naked and with no dialogue, as an object in another character’s recollection of an experience of overwhelming beauty: it’s always stuck in my mind as a transcendent moment. She’s moved way beyond that now of course, but Audiard might well have been inspired by that memory, his delight in observing her seems so intense. Except that he brings equal delight and absorption to all else, constantly leaving us unsure whether our feet are on the ground, or levitating off it, or whether we’re even still in possession of them.
“The most heroic thing you can do is tell someone that you love them,” he said in one of those same interviews. “Love can beat the hell out of you. But I can also beat the hell out of love.” Once again, it sounds like a great string of aphorisms, but is it even semi-valid, does it actually mean anything? God grant us all a stable enough equilibrium that we might one day have time to reflect on it.