Rust & Bone | Director Jacques Audiard | Score: 7.2
There is a watery trope played throughout French writer/director Jacques Audiard’s film, which begins with a dreamlike swirl of waves, bubbles and submersion in blue-tinged liquid, interwoven with close-up images of a child’s sleeping face, his docile breathing providing the only soundtrack. The water is clear, clean but for a churn of flotsam floating in the deep, pickering the screen with a kind of underwater static. This can be interpreted several ways, I suppose, either as a signifier that nothing in this world can ever be perfectly clean, or that the water and the debris are all part of the same ecosystem, inseparable and essential to each other. The curious thing is, for the film’s purposes, either interpretation could work.
The sleeping boy turns out to be Sam (Armand Verdure), the blonde, somewhat sad-eyed young son of Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a kind of bruising Stanley Kowalski type, broad-shouldered and opportunistic. The two of them are traveling south to stay with Ali’s sister, Anna (Corrine Masiero). It’s never made entirely clear what has put them on this desperate course, but references are made to Sam’s mother, a drug dealer who used the boy as an unwitting mule to transport product. In short order, Ali finds work as a bouncer at a local club, where he meets the fetching Stephanie (Marian Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at the local Sea World equivalent. When she has a tragic accident that leaves her a double amputee, she and Ali embark on a kind of peculiar courtship. Primarily friends, they sleep together indiscriminately, and when Ali starts to get paid as a brawler in a loosely organized back-yard fight club, Stephanie accompanies him to his brutal bouts.
On the surface, Ali is not much more than a pugnacious thug, one who cares very little about the trail of bodies in his wake, including his own son, who he routinely neglects in order to follow his own brutal bliss. But there’s clearly a kindness in the man as well, apparent in his relationship with Stephanie, whom he always treats with delicacy and tact. For Stephanie, too, there’s more than meets the eye: One minute, she’s with her former co-workers at the water park, sitting in the sunshine, the next she’s having rumpled sex with this behemoth and attending his savage fights. Clearly, there’s something beyond simple chemistry between the two of them, but neither is quite ready to acknowledge it.
The film is superbly shot, primarily with intimate, hand-held cameras, and its well-composed scenes are cut sharp and taut, never giving you more information than what you absolutely need and not wasting a moment of your time. The acting, too, is precise and exacting, nuanced enough to allow the film’s audience to come to their own conclusions about the couple, the good and bad possible in either one. As visually acute as it is, it also maintains a steady emotional fulcrum with the boy, his ongoing neglect by Ali a bitter riposte to his sweetness with Stephanie. It’s a film unafraid to show its protagonists in a negative light, which makes them all better realized.
That bittersweet vibe in the film — a quirky love story that feels light years away from a rom-com — almost perfectly matches its soundtrack, suitably weighted down by Bon Iver, and Lykke Li, among others. The final result is a film that always feels on the edge of tragedy of one kind or another with its two battered, messy protagonists, so much so that whatever grace the characters achieve by the end feels duly earned.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and here. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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