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Monday, October 14, 2013

Rust and Bone

The Good, The Bad and the Smackable...

Also at Channel 24

What it's about

Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) leaves Belgium with his young son to live with his sister in Antibes, France where he forms a unique and powerful bond with Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca whale trainer who loses both her legs in a horrible accident while on the job.

What we thought

Rust and Bone, Jaques Audiard's follow-up to his acclaimed, multi-award-winning A Prophet, is a consistently artful, often powerful film that unfortunately never quite manages to overcome its one, central flaw: its awful chief protagonist.

Though the plot of Rust and Bone is remarkably straightforward, it's a thematically rich, complicated piece about two broken people finding first comfort then love in one another. On the one hand, we have Marion Cotillard's Stephanie, a woman who is physically maimed doing her job, while on the other, we have Matthias Schoenaerts' Alain, a man crippled by his own self-destructive emotions who earns his living by taking part in illegal street fights.

The film's lack of plot is matched by its meandering structure and clearly intentional languid pacing, but though it is at times a bit boring and at others utterly exasperating, it still manages to draw you in with both its exploration of what makes love work and these two seriously dysfunctional people are bolstered by each other's imperfections. It's not light and it is seriously lacking in a sense of humour (“serious” movies often make the mistake of overlooking how absurd and funny, even if darkly funny, life tends to be) but its ability to find beauty in suffering makes for a rather moving and involving film.

Unfortunately, all the good work is somewhat undone by how horrible Alain is – the character, not the actor who does an admirable job with what he has. That he's emotionally damaged is a large part of the film's underlying point, but he's neither sympathetic enough, nor complex enough a character to get the viewer involved in his story or to have them care what happens to him. He didn't need to be likable, but as character that the film spends most of its time focusing on, there needs something on which we, as an audience, can hook on to. As it stands he's simply an unpleasant scum bag with no real redeeming qualities in sight.

The problem, of course, is that it is this precise dickishness that makes his relationship with Stephanie so interesting. Stephanie is hardly an angelic character as she comes across as quite abrasive even before her tragic accident, but it's her loss of her legs and the loss of self that comes with it, that opens her up to someone like Alain. Without her legs she sees herself as a victim, as someone that “regular” people would automatically pity, rather than engage with, so Alain's cold, utterly uncaring attitude towards what has happened to her, makes him, in effect, her perfect man. With him at her side, Stephanie starts to find meaning and happiness in her life once again.

The film would simply have been incalculably better had it focused primarily on Stephanie's character, as it is her story with which we ultimately really relate and perhaps made Alain more of a supporting character or, at least, just an ounce more sympathetic. As it stands, it feels like a film of two halves – the beauty of Stephanie's story and the frustrating coarseness of Alain's – that are presumably supposed to complement one another in theory, but in practice focusing more of the attention of Alain stopped the film from ever truly winning me over. Especially when you consider how pat the ending of Alain's story ends up being.

Still, though the ultimate experience was one of frustration, I wouldn't dream of giving Rust and Bone a lower score. It's intellectually engaging and often emotionally absorbing and beautifully put together on a purely technical level. If there is one reason to see it, however, it has to be a spectacular performance from Marion Cotillard who not only entirely convinces as a disabled person (the very impressive CGI helped, but it's she who sells the effect) but brings to life a nuanced, subtle and complicated character with a brilliantly nuanced, subtle and complex reading. The screen time may belong to Schoenaerts, but the film undoubtedly belongs to her.

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