Rust and Bone, directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard (writer/director of Oscar nominated, “A Prophet”) depicts the slowly developing love story of Stephanie (Marion Cotillard, “The Dark Knight Rises”) and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, “Bullhead”) who, despite being an unlikely pairing, form a bond through tragedy and life’s misfortunes.
When Stephanie is first introduced she appears as though she has lost her will to live. Despite the fact that she currently has fully functioning legs, she doesn’t use them to walk away from a situation she is clearly miserable in. The first time we actually see her smile isn’t until later in the movie when she steps onto a platform to direct a whale show at Marineland. Clearly working as a whale trainer is her only current source of joy.
Ali is emotionally vacant and lives his life “just getting by.” We first meet him as he heads to his sister Anna’s (Corinne Masiero, “The Dreamlife of Angels”) with his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) (she’s putting them both up as they’re homeless). On the train journey there he scavenges for scraps of passengers left-over’s to feed him and his son with, his fathering skills don’t appear to lend themselves to much more than that. He seems more interested in his dreams of becoming an Ultimate Fighter.
Ali and Stephanie’s love story may be a slow burner but Rust and Bone most definitely is not. It’s dramatically gripping to say the least, inducing actual gasps from its audience in places. Partially because Stephanie and Ali’s meetings are always centered on physical trauma or violence beginning with a brawl outside The Annex nightclub where Ali gets himself a job as a bouncer. Their first encounter is later on outside the bar when Ali steps in to break up a fight involving Stephanie.
An emotional cripple Ali may be, but he shows a caring side in his handling of Stephanie that night and throughout the film. Although undoubtedly having ulterior motives, he calmly takes her home as she’s too drunk to drive. Despite her living with a partner he leaves his number just in case she ever needs it. It turns out that this small gesture was far more integral to Stephanie’s well-being than they could both ever have imagined.
Stephanie is involved in a horrible accident at work that leaves her in a wheel chair losing the use of the only thing that appeared to have previously given her a sense of self — her legs (she confesses to liking to get her legs out and have men look at her in clubs). In this time of sheer desperation and feeling like she’s lost everything as opposed to just her legs, she calls Ali’s number and he begins regular visits. Showing her no pity and a great deal of humanity (in spite of himself) he reignites a will to live inside her, more so than she appeared to have ever had before her accident.
A recurring theme throughout director Audiard’s work is the exploration of physicality. One would have thought that after enduring such a physical trauma Stephanie would have developed a newfound respect for good physical health. Ironically, however, she instead becomes fascinated with Ali’s side career as an illegal bare-knuckle fighter. Another beautiful irony of the film is that Ali, who prior to becoming involved with Stephanie was all about surface attributes (we see him checking her legs out in a scene before her accident), develops a bond that goes deeper than the physical with a girl who has no legs. Stephanie finds his humanity and improves his relationship with his son and sister.
Rust and Bone has a raw, natural beauty about it and doesn’t hint of self-indulgence. It feels like watching a love story unfold just as it is; with no frills. It could quite easily have become melodramatic if its undertaking had been left in the wrong hands. Luckily for us Audiard, Cotillard and Schoenaerts clearly understand the beauty in truth and simplicity.