Marion Cotillard shows some flesh, loses some flesh and shares some, too, in Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated drama A Prophet. The movie, about a crippled woman who develops an unlikely relationship with a knuckle fighter, features powerful performances but never delivers a knockout blow.
Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a whale trainer who loses both her legs after a freak accident. Depressed and reclusive, she connects with a bouncer she met at a bar. Alaine (Matthias Schoenaerts) has a son but has only ever cared for himself. He scrapes by in life, having moved from job to job until he finally finds solace in the lucrative sport of street boxing. Despite their different backgrounds and personalities, the two form a shaky bond that may or may not develop into something more serious.
Rust and Bone is a character drama that rests largely on the performances by Cotillard and Schoenaerts. The two actors rise to the task. Cotillard gives her best effort since her Oscar-winning role in La vie en rose. Schoenaerts, who turned in the hard-to-read lead performance in the Oscar-nominated Bullhead, also gives a fine performance.
Together, they offer audiences one of the more unique couples put to screen. Their characters are diametrically opposite in every way, and yet their connection is believable, even natural.
At its core, Rust and Bone is a standard romantic drama, about two people from two different tracts of life that are brought together and find something to hold onto. There are other layers of the onion, but ultimately, that’s what Rust and Bone is. It’s where Audiard takes risks with the storytelling, his characters and their emotional tone that give the movie teeth. Unfortunately, some of the risks work, and some do not.
As in Bullhead, Schoenarts’ character is both the movie’s strength and biggest weakness. When I watched Bullhead, I didn’t know what to make of the actor’s nuanced, tormented performance. With Rust and Bone, I realize the actor is simply drawn to the most challenging of character types. Alaine is intriguing to watch but hard to like. He is all but devoid of emotion, his actions hard to relate to, and as a result he is hard to rally around.
As a character study, it is Alaine who makes Rust and Bone so interesting. As a romance, it is Alaine who ultimately makes the movie hard to swallow. The relationship between Alaine and Stéphanie is believable, but is it one we want to believe in? Stéphanie falls for the bad boy, and not just the bad boy but one who has shown little compassion for anyone other than himself, including his own sister and son. For this reason, why should we want them to be together in the end? And for this reason, Rust and Bone never achieves the emotional climax Audiard is pursuing.
Rust and Bone is a well made movie with strong performances and complex characters, and it may be one of the better movies of the year. But at its core – as a romantic drama – its complex characters offer a challenge Audiard is unable to overcome. The movie wins on points, but needed a knockout blow, and it’s a knockout punch that it doesn’t have.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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