Moving ‘Rust and Bone’ ranks as one of the year’s best films

Rust and Bone/2012/Sony Pictures Classics/120 min.

Streetwise and sublime, “Rust and Bone” is a contemporary melodrama beautifully told. In director and co-writer Jacques Audiard’s capable hands, what could have been a preposterous and sappy saga is human and moving.

Bookended from a child’s point of view, the movie opens with fragments of a dream through which we enter a world marked by darkness and brutality as well as by joy and redemption. The child here is 5-year-old Sam (Armand Verdure) who travels by train with his father Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) to Antibes, France. Ali scavenges among other passengers’ discarded food so that the two can eat.

In Antibes, they move in with Ali’s sister Anna (Corinne Masiero). Ali is able to find a job as a bouncer at a disco and later as a security guard and kickboxing combatant. One night at the disco, Ali encounters hauntingly seductive tough lady Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), wiping blood from her face, as she’s leaving the place. Alarmed, Ali accompanies her home and, through their brief, stilted conversation, learns that she works as an orca whale trainer at Marineland. Ali also finds that she has a boyfriend but leaves his number anyway.

The next time he hears from Stéphanie, she reveals shocking news: she is confined to a wheelchair, having lost her legs in a horrific accident with a whale during a Marineland performance. The two begin a friendship, devoid of pity on his part, that sustains them as she tries to piece her life together again and as he struggles with fatherhood and finding true intimacy.

“What came first was the desire to tell a love story,” says Audiard, at a recent press conference in Beverly Hills. He and co-writer Thomas Bidegain added the love-story element to the foundation provided by Canadian author Craig Davidson’s collection of short stories. (Audiard’s other films include “A Prophet,” The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” and “Read My Lips.” He is the son of screenwriter/director/actor Michel Audiard.)

Subtle performances and stark, poetic imagery temper the melodrama of “Rust and Bone.” Audiard says he and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine talked about the films of Lon Chaney, fairground films of the Great Depression, and especially Charles Laughton’s great film noir “The Night of the Hunter,” which begins with a father being arrested in front of his children because he has stolen money in order to feed them.

Robert Mitchum plays the sinister preacher in “The Night of the Hunter.”

There’s also an homage to Robert Mitchum’s love/hate hand tattoos from “Hunter.”

“Rust and Bone” seems a natural for Oscar nominations, particularly the work of Schoenaerts and Cotillard. (She won Best Actress for her role as Édith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” from 2007.) The actors’ naturalness and understatement lend realness and dignity to the extreme, sometimes frightening, situations Ali and Stéphanie find themselves in.

Indeed, the characters themselves are unusual and complex. Says Cotillard: “I read the script and at the end Stéphanie was still a mystery… a mystery that was not to be solved because it was part of who she was.”

As shooting progressed, Cotillard says she came to see Stéphanie as a cowboy. “She turned anger into power. That’s a cowboy, right?”

“Rust and Bone” opens today in New York and LA.

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