Proving again that her Best Actress Academy Award for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose was no fluke, the marvellously sensual Marion Cotillard, with her wounded doe eyes and look of permanent unfulfilled longing, delivers another kidney punch as a double amputee in love with an illegal bare-knuckle fighter in the French shocker Rust and Bone. Her move to Hollywood was understandable, anxious as she must have been to parlay her 2008 Oscar into a major career development. But so far her unique gifts have been largely wasted in stupid American films like Inception and Contagion. Woody Allen knew what to do with her in Midnight in Paris,but for the most part she’s been forced to work far below her talent level. I’m glad she returned to France for acclaimed filmmaker Jacques Audiard (A Prophet). His blend of measured sips of taut narrative and a detailed visual style brings out Ms. Cotillard’s poignancy. Rust and Bone addresses today’s trendy theme of sex and the disabled with fresh vision, but unlike the runaway hit The Sessions,it does so with a desperate need for wider audience accessibility and considerably less tenderness.
When this movie premiered at September’s Toronto International Film Festival to largely indifferent reviews, one wag commented that “not since Orca has a movie given killer whales such a bum rap.” That’s a funny line, but although I chuckled, I lamented the fact that such a withering dismissal missed the point of the picture entirely. In Rust and Bone, the haunting Ms. Cotillard plays Stephanie, an emotionally hijacked woman who works as a trainer of whales at a Marine World tourist attraction on the French Riviera, connecting with the humongous creatures on a level she cannot reach with humans. During a horrific accident on the job, she is left without legs—embittered, unemployed and without focus. While she negotiates a slow, clouded recovery to learn how to walk again with prostheses, braces and crutches, Stephanie meets Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a homeless drifter and hulking brute who lives with his estranged sister, a supermarket cashier, in a cramped apartment, and supports his neglected 5-year-old son by working as a bouncer and waging bets on street brawls he fights with his bare fists. An uneasy, often challenging relationship ensues, in which writer-director Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain rummage through the detritus of two lost souls who try to save each other from hell and find both pain and solace in their awkward attempts to commit. Even though her character is never fully explored, Ms. Cotillard is heartbreaking, and she is evenly matched in every scene by co-star Mr. Schoenaerts, the vulnerable battering ram fresh from his breakout triumph in last year’s Bullhead. Although their chemistry does more for the familiar “achingly sad girl meets immorally damaged pugilist” storyline than any of Mr. Audiard’s trademark impressionistic camera work, the stylish cinematography is undeniably impressive. But Rust and Bone is still a very depressing piece of work, and at two hours, it’s much too long, sapped by too many extraneous scenes that slow the pace at the wrong times. There’s also a minimalistic shortness of breath in the dialogue that leaves one wanting more, and a bloody, pulverizing final fight scene so ghastly and violent you might not be able to watch it. Mr. Audiard has style galore, but he suffers from the same elephantiasis of the ego as almost all of the current American directors. He doesn’t know how to improve his work with judicious cutting. I’d like to present him with a pair of sharp scissors and show him how to use them on Rust and Bone.
RUST AND BONE
Running Time 120 minutes
Written by Jacques Audiard,
Thomas Bidegain and Craig Davidson (story)
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Marion Cotillard,
Matthias Schoenaerts and Armand Verdure