Rust and Bone, marks the return of Parisian filmmaker Jacques Audiard. Much like his 2009 success A Prophet, this picture pushes viewers to the unpleasant extremes of reality whilst remaining rooted in the mundane. Freely adapted from the short stories of Canadian author Craig Davidson, Rust And Bone confronts the audience with the adage: what do you do when life serves you lemons? In fact, for these characters the question is close to what do you do if Schweppes’ annual order gets delivered to your front door in an administrative mix-up? If you’ve seen Audiard’s last two films, especially The Beat That My Heart Skipped, the glances towards razor blades will seem thankfully fleeting. Here, the Frenchman is seeking a milder, if no less acidic answer.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) travels from Belgium to the South of France to stay with an estranged sister. Tagging along behind is his chirpy young son, Sam (Armand Verdure). Ali finds work as a bouncer and when a woman, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), gets into a fight in his club he demonstrates a characteristic combination of good nature and woeful insensitivity. After driving her home, he announces, in front of her boyfriend, that he’s left his number if she wants it. Only after Stephanie, who trains and performs with orcas at a local sea park, loses both her legs in the kind of workplace accident that Lawyers For You just aren’t qualified to cover, do the pair meet again. She calls that number and he gamely comes and takes her to the beach in a scene full of honest sentiment.
The ensuing romance, if that is the correct term for this complex relationship, stretches both characters beyond their limits. She may carry the obvious handicap but Ali is shown to be grievously emotionally disabled. Rarely has such an unsympathetic and flawed character led a film so convincingly. Newcomer Schoenaerts excels in this problematic role. As Ali’s life descends into underground boxing, illegal work on the side, one night stands and child neglect, Stephanie treads the careful line between involvement and envelopment. The confidence he brings her is liberating but he proves even less predictable than her Cetacean former colleagues.
At times during its third, brawl-based quarter, Rust and Bone can feel a little like Rocky if Adrian had worked in a more eventful pet store. The title derives from the taste of being hit in the mouth and by the end of some sequences you may find a slightly iron-like flavour swilling around your molars; such is the tautness and unglamorous nature of Audiard’s graphic direction. However, it is the realism of the interpersonal content that Hollywood producers would have filtered out. None of the leading characters are doing that well for themselves, even the kid is annoying, and people tend to express themselves physically rather than verbally. Neither empathy nor sympathy is the goal.
Unfortunately, the distance this creates may lose Rust and Bone many viewers. Strong naturalistic performances do a great deal to generate audience involvement but are hampered by a narrative that, whilst always visceral, is not consistently gripping, becoming troublingly episodic and formulaic towards the close. Hopefully the subtitles won’t deter punters either but, when competing for Foreign Film Of The Moment against the readily accessible Untouchable, Audiard has done himself no favours with his alienating subject matter. A tough and original watch, this is certainly not Rocky with the rough edges left on.