Bleak but realistic; tragic but hopeful, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) is a compelling look at lost souls: individuals broken both in mind and body.
Painting a bold and unflinchingly raw portrait of true-to-life but hard-to-like characters, Audiard clinically exposes the heart- and gut-wrenching truth; this is an intense and intimate relationship drama that brazenly defies both convention and expectation, and delivers in unprecedented power and potency. It's no wonder that the film has garnered so many Awards, and it's also no surprise that fans were somewhat shocked to see it go unmentioned at the Oscars.
Although heavily publicised I would strongly recommend viewing this film without watching the Trailer and have gone to great lengths in this review to avoid giving away any of the same spoilers.
The story follows the lives of Alain and Stephanie, two disparate individuals who are thrown together after tragedy befalls one of them. Alain is an unemployed single father who is struggling to realise his dream: to become a professional fighter; Stephanie is an animal trainer at a local marine park, where she works with whales, performing jaw-dropping tricks.
Alain is physically strong but socially inept, with emotional fractures that leave him unable to interact conventionally with anybody - whether friends, family or even his own son. Stephanie has her own traumas to deal with, and similarly has spent most of her life avoiding emotional connection, so when their lives collide, they both have to deal with the change one day at a time, often with more failure than success.
Although ostensibly a French-Belgian production – not only directed by Audiard but also with a screenplay co-written by him too, and featuring an all-French cast – the original story it was based on was actually written in English by a little-known Canadian author called Craig Davidson. Davidson’s short story collection by the same name (Rust and Bone, named after the first tale in the collection) housed a series of 7 different tales, the majority of which were utterly unconnected to one another.
Now normally I’m a big advocate of original language adaptations – like the original Swedish version of The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy – but here Audiard has worked wonders with just two of the short story tales, weaving them together in unexpected ways and actually completely reversing the plot of one of them, to great effect. Indeed, whilst some conceptual ideas are clearly derived in extremely basic form, the metamorphosis that they have undergone is quite extensive, and this is an adaptation in only the loosest sense of the word.
Audiard has received successive critical acclaim in the past, both for his 2009 feature A Prophet and his 2005 film The Beat That My Heart Skipped (a remake of the underrated Harvey Keitel drama, Fingers), and in all of his features he has managed to effortlessly reveal brimming emotion without the need for direct exposition in the dialogue; indeed often the relationships he depicts transcend any kind of common language, with both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and his earlier 2001 film, Read My Lips showcasing romances that blossom in spite of language barriers.
It is perhaps with Read My Lips (Sur mes levres) that Rust and Bone shares the most commonalities, as both look at a relationship between two very different individuals – from different backgrounds – both of whom have emotional language barriers that they overcome in order to, eventually, get to know one another. Rust and Bone portrays two people who are all too easy to dislike: Alain is positively savage in rudimental upbringing; nominally existing merely to survive, and seemingly unable to form conventional emotional bonds; Stephanie has, perhaps more out of choice, decided that she prefers to avoid emotional connections in favour of more voyeuristic sentiments – she prefers to live in thought rather than in practice.
Thrown together quite forcefully, however, they find themselves actually remarkably suited to one another; sure the burgeoning relationship is founded upon – and punctuated by – tragedy, but the blunt force trauma of Alain’s behaviour is precisely what the emotionally-near-comatose Stephanie actually needs.
After the initial hit of being introduced to two characters who are remarkably hard to either like or associate with, the drama oddly – but cleverly – avoids the usual pitfalls of overtly working towards changing that. In much the same way as the two characters struggle to accept one another, so too do you, as a viewer, struggle to accept or like them. Intrigue comes first, the drama being never less than compelling, with the next stage being tentative respect – although as soon as it arrives, it is utterly thrown to the wolves. The writer/director dangerously plays with your feelings towards the two characters, almost as much as he throws tragedy at them and sees them avoid actually acknowledging their feelings for one another.
Once you’ve seen the film – and seen these two performances – you will certainly wonder why it wasn’t put forward for any Oscar recognition (instead France picked the similarly-themed but considerably more conventional, based-on-a-true-story, Intouchables, which didn’t even receive a Nomination) and, more importantly, wonder whether the two leads were, as a result, robbed of their own subsequent Oscar nods.
Certainly Marion Cotillard’s dedicated co-starring performance as Stephanie is up there amidst her absolute best. The French actress is globally known for her supporting performances in Chris Nolan’s megablockbusters Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, but has been impressing audiences ever since her cute-but-feisty performance back in the Luc Besson-produced Taxi films well over a decade ago.
Back in 2004 she similarly missed out on any Oscar recognition for her César-Award-winning Best Supporting performance in A Very Long Engagement, and it wasn’t until 2007’s La Vie en Rose – and her seminal portrayal of legendary French singer Edith Piaf – that she finally gained that elusive Best Actress Award, breaking several Oscar records in the process. Here she goes all-out as Stephanie, speaking volumes simply in her look; you can read more emotion on her face than is spoken directly by the entire script.
She also shares great chemistry with co-star Matthias Schoenaerts (best known for his role in Loft, the most successful Flemish film at the Belgian Box Office, and also his performance in the Oscar-nominated Bullhead), who is arguably the lead in this feature, even though Cotillard’s powerful performance occasionally threatens to overshadow his contributions. Schoenaerts is still the driving force, though, and is superb, especially when it comes to bravely bringing us a character who is so inaccessible, and so seemingly emotionless and pre-programmed by undeveloped basic instincts, and yet who simply must have something deeper going on behind his bloodied fists and furrowed brow.
Audriad’s Rust and Bone is equal parts emotionally detached and emotionally draining, but it is also, ultimately, a rewarding exploration of broken individuals, clinically captured with some stunning use of fantastic digital effects (necessary after the ramifications of one key event), bolstered by a suitably potent score (as well as a couple of well-placed song tracks) and driven by two outstanding central performances, who are themselves surrounded by a host of capable supporting actors. It many ways Audriad's works have succeeded the efforts of master filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, following on from the likes of Decalogue and The Three Colours Trilogy.
The frequently bleak and almost relentlessly tragic subject-matter may take its toll on you whilst watching it, but the portrayal of inner humanity and intimate social interaction is understatedly passionate and unquestionably impressive. Life and living are rarely dealt with in such an unconventional, saccharine-less manner; although it’s not for everybody, for those prepared to undergo the pain, the reward is undeniable.
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