120 minutes | MPAA rating: R
As much as there is to enjoy in the lead performances of Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts, Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” labors under a surfeit of overkill.
At its core it’s a down-to-earth story. A womanizing man uncomfortable with his role as a single father befriends a young woman disfigured in a terrible accident. Little by little he pulls her out of her shell of depression, while she helps him discover his paternal instincts and his less-selfish side.
Cue the violins.
But wait. That’s too simple. Too cut and dried.
How about this: The guy becomes a champion of illegal underground gladiatorial combats. And the woman loses her legs to a killer whale.
Yeah, that’s much more believable.
So you see what I mean about overkill. And yet Audiard (maker of the epic prison drama “A Prophet”) and his stars have almost enough skill – almost – to sell “Rust and Bone’s” hyperbole.
The film begins with Ali (Schoenaerts) and his young son Sam (Armand Verdure) arriving on the French Riviera. Ali’s estranged wife has gone to prison on a drug violation and now he is Sam’s custodian – not that he has any innate ability in that direction. He’s short-tempered and inattentive…he much prefers to let his sister Anna (Corrine Masiero), with whom the newcomers move in, do the parenting.
Meanwhile Stephanie (Cotillard) spends her days training killer whales for a big commercial aquatic park and her nights at local nightspots. She has a live-in boyfriend, but that relationship is going south. She and Ali meet at a club after she gets in a fight and he drives her home.
A horrible accident involving one of the whales leaves Stephanie with her legs cut off at the knees. She’s nursing her misery in a handicapped-equipped apartment when Ali re-enters her life, literally carrying her into the ocean surf on his back.
Stephanie is shy about being seen in her pitiable condition, but Ali is so matter-of-fact about it all that gradually her self-confidence returns. Eventually they become lovers, though Ali isn’t exactly romantic. He is always asking “Are you OK?,” but this is less honest solicitude than his studied way of merely appearing like he cares.
Anyway, Ali starts slugging it out in underground fights, building a reputation. Stephanie is at first appalled, then turned on by the bloody brawling. Before long she’s collecting bets on the outcome of the contests.
One difficulty with “Rust and Bone” is that Ali is an unlikeable character. He’s selfish and solitary – qualities we might overlook in a cultured and/or clever man. But Ali isn’t particularly clever.
Eventually a crisis forces Ali to realize the important things in his life – Sam and Stephanie.
Even with her legs erased through digital trickery and her features contorted through pain and angst, Cotillard has a star presence that makes her fantastically watchable. Her depiction of Stephanie’s emotional lows are genuinely moving.
But ultimately “Rust and Bone” is just a diverting curiosity, which like its male protagonist wants to look like it cares more than it really does.
| Robert W. Butler