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The unpredictable love story Rust and Bone is not the first thing you might imagine French filmmaker Jacques Audiard would make on the heels of A Prophet, his widely lauded film of 2009. A devastating story about race, class, and power, A Prophet takes place within the confined, all-male world of prison – far from the azure skies and waters of Antibes on the Mediterranean coast where Rust and Bone is set. Yet, you won’t find the dappled light and carefree vacationers associated with the Côte d’Azur; instead of a sunny picture postcard, Audiard shows us Antibes’ inner city and the lives of the service-industry workers who are not on holiday from their problems.
The naturalism of Rust and Bone is countered by the movie’s grand, melodramatic flourishes – a singular, freakish event kicks the story into gear, and another flirtation with the jaws of death heralds the film’s conclusion. All the while, the film exudes a deep romanticism that’s nevertheless unsentimental and appeals to our higher inclinations while revealing them to be at the beck and call of our more primal instincts. Where Rust and Bone’s story about two unlikely lovers is headed is as unknowable to its characters as it is to its viewers. With a raw physicality that keeps the film grounded in the present, Rust and Bone maintains an immediacy that contrasts with the film’s haunting residue.
As the film opens, Ali (Schoenaerts, the acclaimed star of Bullhead) is heading south with his young son Sam (Verdure) to crash with his sister (Sallette) in Antibes. We can see that he’s ill-equipped as a parent as he pilfers half-eaten sandwiches from abandoned train seats to feed his famished boy. Yet a vague story about the boy’s mother using her son as a drug mule earns Ali our sympathy as a man who’s trying to do the right thing. Ali gets a job as a club bouncer, where he meets Stéphanie (Cotillard), and drives her home after a street altercation. Although he stares at her legs during the drive and endears himself to Stéphanie by putting her boyfriend in his place, they are of different worlds. A trainer of performing orcas in a water park, Stéphanie is attacked by a whale that goes off-script (acting on its instincts?), and loses both legs below her knees in the bizarre accident (all set provocatively to Katy Perry’s “Firework”). Trying to find her way out of the sorrow of a new amputee, she calls Ali (another impulse?), who doesn’t coddle or pity her like the others in her life. They evolve from friends into eventual fuck-buddies, burning up the screen with the intensity of their rutting. Ali, meanwhile, has taken on another job as a bare-knuckles fighter in back-alley tournaments. His hands and body take terrible beatings, and Stéphanie becomes his improbable manager. As in Audiard’s film from 2001, Read My Lips, two people with physical and social deficits discover an affecting bond – a bond that grows stronger because of these deficits and not in spite of them.
Audiard’s screenplay is inspired by two unrelated pieces in Canadian writer Craig Davidson’s short-story collection titled Rust and Bone. In the book, Stéphanie and Ali are characters in two separate stories; it is Audiard who envisioned the intertwining of their tales and the ways in which their needs intersect. The filmmaker has created a haunting movie, one that connects on a visceral level that defies easy explication. The unembellished performances by Cotillard and Schoenaerts exude a raw authenticity that anchor the film’s grander melodrama and embed the characters in the viewer’s memory. Though Stéphanie’s legs are removed from sight through the wonders of digital film effects (and isn’t it nice to witness CGI effects used in the service of pure drama for a change?), the character will remain in your consciousness like a phantom limb.