Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone is an unapologetic melodrama rendered in what you might call semi-stylized neo-expressionistic realism, and it works like gangbusters. The picture takes some turns you don't expect, and some you do. But the ultimate effect is that of a filmmaker striving not to make a work of art, or a subtle drama that will win big festival prizes, or an afternoon's worth of cinema for sophisticated people. He just wants to send you home with a story and with the memory of his characters' faces. In other words, he wants to give you the world.
Which is perhaps why, when the movie debuted at Cannes last spring, critics either raved or complained about how over-the-top it was. Rust and Bone certainly is over the top, but only in the sense that Audiard dares to take chances with pure conventionality.
As the movie opens, we watch as a scruffy young man leads his small blond son first through some winding, industrial-looking European city streets and then onto a train. Both the man and the boy wear jackets, suggesting it's cold enough for that, but the kid is wearing sandals — the visual idea is that if he owned any other shoes, he'd be wearing them.
When the two finally board that train car, the boy announces that he's hungry, and his father scrounges through the seat pockets around them, assembling a small feast from people's discards. Later, he steals a camera from a store, using the proceeds to buy the kid a McDonald's Happy Meal.
The father, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the son, Sam (Armand Verdure, a somber charmer with hollows under his eyes and teacup handles for ears), are headed for Antibes, where they'll move in with Ali's sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero, in a small, wonderfully sturdy performance). She welcomes them reluctantly. Ali immediately begins looking for a job, and he lands one as a nightclub bouncer. As he's breaking up a fight one night, he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a mystery in a miniskirt. He learns that by day, she trains killer whales at a local marine park; by night, she likes to dance.
Not long after this, Stephanie loses her legs as the result of a terrible event — you'd call it a freak accident, if only it didn't unfold with such gorgeous dramatic restraint, and to the tune of Katy Perry's "Firework" no less. Meanwhile, the scrappy Ali has taken up bare-knuckle fighting as a way of supplementing his patchwork of increasingly disreputable jobs. He and Stephanie fall in love, eventually, partly thanks to pure animal attraction and partly because both are clawing their way out of circumstance.
If that seems like a lot to cram into a movie, it is. But the too-muchness of it all is precisely what makes Rust and Bone work. Audiard co-wrote the picture with Thomas Bidegain, loosely adapting Craig Davidson's short-story collection of the same name. The picture isn't as taut, or as dreary, as Audiard's last movie, 2009's A Prophet (also a collaboration between Audiard and Bidegain); its energy is more the free-floating kind, but it's vibrant even in the film's darkest minutes.
And it can't hurt that the actors are fully in tune with Audiard's half-gritty, half-florid romantic vision. Schoenaerts' Ali is, through much of the movie, the sort of guy you're not sure you like, and yet you can't take your eyes off him: He's a lad prowling around in trainers and track pants, a player who seems to think he's much better looking than he is. But his eyes show something more complicated, and more fearful, as the story moves forward.
Part of what he fears, it seems, is everything that Stephanie has to offer him. Cotillard is superb here, giving a performance that's delicate and bold at once. When she first meets Ali, she bristles visibly — and understandably — when he decrees that she's dressed like a prostitute. Later, we see her working with her whales, their smooth black-and-white flanks as sleek and as elegant as a gangster's two-tone shoes; with them, she's joyous, businesslike, authoritative.
And later still, Stephanie shows something much softer and more vulnerable as she sits on the sidelines at a nightclub. By that point, she's been fitted with prosthetic limbs — she could dance, in a way, if she wanted to, but she'd rather not. Watching the bodies on the dance floor, she wears an expression halfway between wistfulness and rapture.
Audiard isn't afraid to be a little sentimental, and that's what distinguishes Rust and Bone from so many other contemporary dramas or romances. Cotillard, though, isn't sentimental at all. In the movie's most visually stunning scene, Stephanie goes back to her workplace to visit her old co-workers, and the whales. She taps the glass of a giant aquarium with her palm, and one of the magnificent beasts swims up to greet her. Using hand signals, she directs his movements as if she were directing traffic, and he obliges dutifully. This is a woman who can bend nature to her whim. It is, you could say, a kind of dancing.