An inspired take on romance
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, December 21, 2012
After his stunning outing with “A Prophet” in 2009, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard has been the subject of panting anticipation among cinephiles. What on earth will he do next? How do you follow perfection?
The answer, presumably, is with a movie that defies categorization, slips convenient genre boundaries, and leaves viewers feeling haunted and inspired in equal measure. “Rust and Bone,” based on short stories by Canadian author Craig Davidson, is one of those movies that never gives the audience a conventional or clear sense of where it’s going. In any other hands, that would mean a disorienting, even alienating, experience. But, steered by the reassuringly authoritative Audiard, “Rust and Bone” turns out to be the best kind of cinematic ride: surprising, spectacular and shot through with tough, unsentimental compassion.
The movie’s tricky emotional tone -- between bleak naturalism and soaring uplift -- is superbly embodied by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who delivers a breakthrough performance as Ali, a homeless single dad of a 5-year-old son who takes refuge with his sister in the French Riviera city of Antibes. When Ali meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer-whale trainer, there’s an initial spark, but no reason to believe their association will achieve any depth, especially given her spiky independence and his carefully guarded reserve. But when a calamity -- which accounts for one of the film’s most impressive and terrifying set pieces -- brings them together, the subsequent relationship unfolds in ways that are unexpected, bracingly honest and profoundly, frankly intimate.
There’s no doubt that Audiard ups his technical game with “Rust and Bone,” which involves computer-generated visual effects more often associated with the likes of Peter Jackson and James Cameron. In addition to being a quirky romance, this movie is deeply engaged with the idea of spectacle, whether in the form of Stephanie’s breathtaking whale shows (and an even more heart-stopping moment, late in the film, when she encounters an orca one-on-one) or the alleyway fistfights Ali enlists in to make money as a bootleg gladiator. As these fascinating protagonists grapple with their limits -- physical, economic, social -- the director pushes the limits of film itself, indulging in his share of screen magic and romance but keeping maudlin overstatement at bay with unshakable rigor and restraint.
Luckily, Audiard has found actors who can hold all of these often conflicting ideals. Cotillard submerges her dazzling beauty to play a woman of decidedly unglamorous determination and grit, and Schoenaerts matches her inch-for-inch as a man whose preternatural calm could easily be taken for either supreme kindness or pathological disengagement.
With Audiard astutely guiding their performances, the mesmerizingly charismatic Cotillard and Schoenaerts easily enlist viewers to care whether these scrappy, resourceful survivors will endure to fight another day. (And Audiard allows viewers to harbor misgivings about the characters’ embrace of punishing violence, even as we cheer the indomitable spirit it symbolizes.)
Casting off the baubles and bows of classic screen escapism, “Rust and Bone” turns out to be one of the most transportingly romantic movies of the year, one that finds the most stirring emotion in struggle rather than in ginned-up melodrama or easy resolution. That’s what makes an affair to remember, a reminder Audiard delivers by way of a film that, like its central characters, is unforgettable.
Contains strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and profanity. In French with English subtitles.