Jacques Audiard’s films always have a staunchly European feel while keeping one eye on his American contemporaries. His The Beat My Heart Skipped is an adaptation of James Toback’s 70s film, Fingers, and A Prophet owes as much to Martin Scorsese as it does the Dardenne Brothers. His newest, Rust and Bone, the story of an Orca Whale trainer who loses the bottom of her legs in a freak accident and her unexpected encounter with a brawny fighter, is rooted in Americanism both on the surface and just below it. Not unlike Silver Linings Playbook, Rust and Bone generates romance from two desperate, but equally lost, beings. Both films dance one dial click away from exploitation, but neither venture far enough to be offensive. However, Audiard’s film lives in grit and control instead of farce and whimsy. We believe in the connection between these two leads long before they themselves have any need to be in each other’s lives.
Where a film like The Intouchables gleans from the styling of Hollywood indie obsessions, Rust and Bone uses American pop culture as a crucial element of its storytelling. The much talked about accident scene and its following poetic reenactment, both set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” allude to classic American montage and reliance on popular music. But Audiard embeds the track diegetically to comment on how happenstance it is. Like the film itself, the effect here is pushing music close to being a crutch without venturing entirely into that territory. Likewise, Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” track speaks to pop nostalgia under imagery of a semi-truck (the very American staple) racing through barren countryside. Like the lure of Woody Guthrie, Ali runs from his domestic problems by hitting the road.
However, Rust and Bone isn’t all superficial self-awareness. Matthias Schoenaerts’ Ali is a street level boxer who yearns to be an MMA fighter, though the dream seems little more than a distant fantasy. Stephanie has risen to the success of Orca trainer at a profitable aquarium, yet she endures the dangers that successes can bring. Like the whales trapped in tanks for the entertainment of a paying audience, Stephanie and Ali are slaves to a consumerist world, metaphorically and literally taking a beaten at the expense of lost dreams. Their partnership, a completion of heart, mind, and body that fills the voids missing in each, emerges as an existential love amidst the horrors of daily life.
Marion Cotillard’s quietly crippled (inside long before out) performance as Stephanie has
been regarded as the triumph of the film. The camera often catches Stephanie in long moments of observance, even when the action centers on the animalistic Ali. At times Audiard doesn’t allow us a gaze at Cotillard, the viewer, like Ali, might look around the periphery of the frame to find her. Where Silver Linings Playbook created a world that begs we believe in it, the magnetism of Cotillard keeps Audiard’s work convincing. Ali, for all his bear-like grunts, over-sexed thrusts, and physical violence, gets lured in as a son as much as a lover by Cotillard’s presence. It’s a work of silence and beauty.
Without a driving action to speak of, the outcome of Rust and Bone doesn’t live up to the mechanics of its parts. What’s left is hope for the future, which lets all the questions that the film has built off the hook with the ease of a more pat narrative. Ali and Stephanie fall into each other’s lives at the most convenient moment, but Audiard handles his story with enough refinement to lighten the blow of contrivance. However, deprived of knowing what it wants to be, many moments unfold without getting at any point. Perhaps best summed up by the times when grittiness transforms for little reason into slowing motions under Alexandre Desplat musical arrangements, the film has enough intrigue to be compelling but too little to say to be completely memorable. [B+]
Directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Mr. Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the short-story collection “Rust and Bone” by Craig Davidson; cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine; edited by Juliette Welfling; music by Alexandre Desplat; art direction by Michel Barthélémy; costumes by Virginie Montel; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: two hours.