Rust and Bone seems designed to polarise opinions. A melodramatic poetic realist romance about the odd courtship between a mixed martial arts fighter and a former killer whale trainer with no legs, the film is meshed together from two short stories by the Canadian writer Craig Davidson and they don’t quite fit together but it works nonetheless. Rust and Bone is an atypical movie from Jacques Audiard, usually a director of crime thrillers such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and the recent highly acclaimed A Prophet (2009). This is more like a fairytale, with its relatively simplistic storyline layered with depth but it retains Audiard’s compassion for outsiders.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a single dad from Belgium who comes to the coast to live with his sister. While working the door at a nightclub he stops Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) from being beaten by a customer and drives her home. Neither thinks much of the other until they get back to her apartment. Ali is impressed when he sees the photos of Stephanie training Orcas. Likewise Ali’s contempt for her overbearing boyfriend when he tries to order him about pleases Stephanie. It is doubtful they would meet again were it not for her accident. No longer (or so she thinks) able to do the things she loves she phones Ali presumably because he once showed her kindness.
There is a fairly obvious comparison between the Orcas and Ali. Ali is a childlike brute in need of a firm hand. Though Schoenaerts suggests there is a lot going on under this guy’s skin Ali is incapable of expressing himself except through violence. Though his disregard for other people’s feelings is often destructive it helps his relationship with Stephanie. He has no inhibitions, it does not even register that asking this woman who recently lost her legs if she wants to go for a swim might be a tad insensitive. Yet this brusque approach is entirely what Stephanie needs to draw her out of her isolation and the two form a strong bond with her even acting as the interim manager for his street brawls.
Cotillard has spent the last few years playing girlfriend roles in Hollywood films, albeit for prestige directors like Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan. These films tested Cotillard about as much as playing the eye candy in the Luc Besson produced Taxi movies, but here you can see why Audiard had no interest in making this film without her. In her best work (La Vie en Rose, Little White Lies) Cotillard is ferocious and she makes Stephanie’s journey back to some semblance of her former self entirely believable whether rediscovering the joys of being in water or glassing a man in a nightclub when he is foolish enough to patronise her.
Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography contrast the brightness of the world outside with the darkness of the interiors. The music is perfectly chosen from Katy Perry’s ‘Fireworks’ to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘State Trooper’ during a stylised street brawl. There are moments here of sublime beauty not least when Cotillard summons a whale up against the glass and makes it perform on a return visit to the marine-land.
Though Audiard is unashamedly manipulative the film’s ending seems incongruous and tacked on. No sport is more melodramatic than boxing so quite why Audiard shies away from showing any in the film’s latter stages seems a shame. Perhaps he felt this would detract from Ali’s transformation into a fully rounded human being or make Rust and Bone feel like too much of a genre film but essentially what he has made is a dreamier version of Rocky, poor dumb brute improves himself by learning how to have a proper relationship with a woman.