Nearly every brief summary of Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone borders on the absurd, or at least sounds mawkishly sentimental: A young man, mostly unemployed and recently in charge of his five-year-old son, strikes up a relationship with a killer-whale trainer who is terribly injured in a freak accident. It sounds like a story that will veer into sentimental territory early, overflowing with reminders about the fragility and beauty of life. But though Rust and Bone has those elements, it’s far more layered and subtle than its summary suggests, thanks to the magical combination of Audiard’s direction and Marion Cotillard’s uninhibited, prickly, incredible performance.
Cotillard’s role here is entirely the opposite of her Edith Piaf. Stephanie (Cotillard) meets Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) during a nightclub altercation. He’s the bouncer who drives her home; she’s the beautiful woman who is, for reasons never specified, called a slut by a man who appears to have hit her. Stephanie’s a little bit of a button-pusher. She invites Ali in, which aggravates the man she lives with, but she doesn’t intend anything specific by it. She’s just seeing what will happen.
Ali has just landed in Antibes, France, with his 5-year-old son in tow. They live with Ali’s gruff but affectionate sister, and Ali works as a bouncer and as a security guard before finding shadier ways to make money. He says little, except that he used to fight, and it’s clear that having a child is new to him. Ali only really comes alive in moments of physicality, whether boxing or picking up women who seem willing to sleep with him after one brief bit of eye contact.
Ali has more screen time, but Stephanie’s story propels Rust and Bone. The accident that takes her legs is vague; the scene in which it happens pulses with sympathy for the animals she trains. Audiard presents violence in a very specific way, taking out the too-loud wet thuds of a fight, the shots of frightened faces; he locates the horror and fear in the quietness, the sight of a limp floating body, a pale face, a simple bruise.
Once she’s out of the hospital, Stephanie calls Ali. He comes to see her, and, unintentionally, drags her back into the world. He’s not trying to be selfless; she’s not trying to be saved. Their relationship is pliable but thin, as his life continues and she adjusts to the new shape of hers, finding herself in her changed body. Rust and Bone is deeply physical; sex and violence are key to its characters and its story, but Audiard relocates these cinematic standbys in frames full of long shadows and glaring sunlight, Alexandre Desplat’s graceful, understated score draped around the edges. Class awareness hovers within every frame; ragged and tender relationships fracture and are reset, the rhythms perfect, the ties complex.
Near the end of Rust and Bone, another terrible thing happens. The incident makes perfect sense; the outcome does what tragedy so often does, tugging the characters closer together, snapping the last traces of resistance. But it’s a too-familiar narrative note in a film that’s otherwise set in a different key. Cotillard and Schoenaerts, both giving interior, suggestive, powerful performances, embody the tempo and movement of the film: Reluctant connection drives their stories, giving them (or reminding them of) reasons to keep moving, keep walking, keep turning their faces to the sun. When the film makes that explicit, its quiet strength begins to ebb.
RUST AND BONE: Directed by Jacques Audiard. Screenplay by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain; story by Craig Davidson. Cinematography, Stéphane Fontaine. Editing, Juliette Welfling. Music, Alexandre Desplat. Starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. Sony Pictures Classics, 2012. R. 120 minutes. Three and a half stars.