French filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s latest drama – his first since A Prophet in 2009 – stalks the fringes and extremes of human experience. It’s an end-of-the-line story of a man and woman. She’s a strong spirit dampened by a terrible accident; he’s a homeless single father who scrapes a living from street-fighting. They meet in adversity on the Cote d’Azur and develop an odd, fragile bond.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) travels from Belgium to the south of France to stay with a sister he barely knows, bringing along his good-natured young son, Sam (Armand Verdure). Taking work as a bouncer, he has a brief encounter with a woman, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), who gets into a fight in his club. But it’s only after Stephanie, who trains and performs with orcas at a local sea park, loses both her legs in the most shocking of workplace accidents, that they meet again, after she calls him out of the blue.
Ali and Stephanie form a friendship, hang out on the beach and fall into bed whenever he gives the nod. He gruffly rejects any proper emotional connection, while she expects little from life and other people: her trauma has placed her in an emotional limbo. This is a bold relationship for any filmmaker and his cast to explore: here we have a woman with stumps for legs and a man seemingly with a stump for a heart. Yet Cotillard avoids straining for sympathy, while Schoenaerts offers a portrait of damaged reserve that means we’re willing to run along with him, even like him.
There are intense, violent and upending moments in which Audiard flexes his muscles as a master of gutter atmosphere and plays compellingly with textures and shadows, moving between the light and dark and revelling in half-seen events. It’s a film that vividly and confidently inhabits its own world. But, right from the off, you sense a director fighting to avoid melodrama, sentiment and predictability. It’s a valiant approach that makes for beautiful and strange-looking moments. Yet it also leaves us with a film that feels contrived, meandering and inert, as if the extreme events at its core – and these events constantly threaten to seem ridiculous in isolation – are mere excuses for a tourist excursion into the under regions of France and human experience.
Rust & Bone looks for the poetry in damage and is painted in blood, sweat and tears. The muscularity of Audiard’s approach becomes more macho and less appealing as the film goes on, and the script wanders down distracting byroads that make it feel episodic and inattentive. There’s an intimacy at the beginning of the film between Ali and his son Sam that’s never achieved in the relationship between Ali and Stephanie –though both Cotillard and Schoenaerts strive to give searching and meaningful performances. A hysterical climax that tips Ali into the realms of the loving and the loved feels manipulative and tacked on.