They say you can start your life again even if you find yourself hitting the bottom, but, as some of you know, starting at the bottom is not easy at all. While it is ultimately an optimistic film about healing process, Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” presents that hard truth first through the story of two different people with different challenges to deal with. While honestly observing the desperation and pain from its two main characters, it also touchingly shows how they respectively find the way to get better through their coincidental relationship, and its several flaws in the story are mostly compensated by its strong points including two terrific performances.
Alain(Matthias Schoenaerts), usually called Ali, is a young Belgian kickboxer who has been stuck at the dead end. He once had a promising career in the past, but he is currently a jobless guy, and now he is going with his young son Sam(Armand Verdure) to Antibes in Southern France for another chance to earn money. Because they do not have much money, Ali resorts to stealing at one point for buying a meal for them, and they later come to live in the house of Ali’s sister and her boyfriend(played by Céline Sallette and Mourad Frarema), who have also been struggling in their hard life.
Ali soon finds a job. He starts working as a bouncer in a local nightclub, and that is how he comes across Stéphanie(Marion Cotillard), a young lady who works as a killer whale trainer at the local sea park. After pulling her out of one violent quarrel at the nightclub, he takes Stéphanie to her home and then he gives her his phone number.
Not long after that brief encounter between them, a terrible accident happens to Stéphanie during her killer whale show. When she wakes up at the hospital, she is devastated to find that she has lost both legs due to the accident. While it is quite difficult for her to adjust herself to her damaged body through rehabilitation process and prosthetics, her mind struggles through dark, depressing thoughts and feelings. When she stares at a scalpel placed near her, we can clearly see what she is thinking of.
Still feeling shattered inside, Stéphanie calls Ali, and a casual relationship is formed between them. She likes him because he is blunt, honest, and non-judgmental despite his insensitivity, and he is also attracted to her because, well, she is pretty. He takes her to the beach, and she has a very soothing time while swimming alone in the sea. When she wants to know whether she still can feel something, he does not mind having sex with her at all. He wants it from the beginning, and she is well aware of that, so their first sex is more like a business deal rather than a romantic behavior.
The director/co-screenplay writer Jacques Audiard’s previous film was “A Prophet”(2009), a dark, gritty prison drama which feels far different from the warm and sunny atmosphere of “Rust and Bone”. In that movie, a young Arab prisoner gradually builds his new identity as struggling for his life from the bottom under the harsh environment, and we can say that two main characters in “Rust and Bone” are not that different from him. While watching Ali passionately hurling himself to the illegal matches for earning more money, Stéphanie slowly finds the will and energy to climb up from the bottom inside her, and there is a poignant scene later in the story when she reencounters a killer whale trained by her at the sea park.
As the unlikely couple of the story, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts are always engaging to watch in the movie. Cotillard suddenly gained our attention through her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose”(2007), and what this talented actress does in this movie is simply marvelous to watch. With her open, expressive face, she gives us a very believable portrayal of a woman being damaged and then recovering on both physical and psychological level, and it also helps that we can really believe her character lost both legs thank to the seamless special effects on the screen.
On the opposite, Schoenaerts imbues considerable complexity to a man who is not so likable for many reasons. Schoenaerts previously grabbed my attention through his electrifying performance as a tragic muscular anti-hero in Oscar-nominated film “Bullhead”(2011), and he gives another impressive masculine performance here in this film. Like the hero of “Bullhead”, Ali uses his body as the armor to live through his life, and that is well exemplified by those bloody illegal matches scenes in the film. It is surely painful to him, but he has trained his body for enduring pain – and, most of all, he gets money if he wins.
When I watched “Rust and Bone” twice in last year, I had some reservation about it because of the rather awkward transition around 15 minutes before the ending. The movie suddenly switches its course at that point, and then it strikes us with a quiet but gut-wrenching moment for quickly arriving at the finale. When I watched it again at last night, I still felt the same awkwardness in its storytelling, but I also could see more clearly how that part worked along with the rest of the story to some degrees.
On the whole, the movie is good enough to recommend thanks to Audiard’s sensitive but unsentimental direction and the strong performances from his two lead performers. While noticing its weaknesses, I also observed that its good moments felt as fresh as before during my third watching – I guess it will gain more admiration from me later as it climbs up to the place it probably deserves.