It’s hard to pin down what French-director Jacques Audiard’s latest film is really about. In “Rust and Bone,” Audiard – responsible for cross-Atlantic critical hits like “A Prophet” (2009) and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005) – continues to temper abrasive, woebegone characters with his trademark style that lies between the aggressive and the poetic, a style that made his previous features all the more vivid and resonating. Like that of Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“21 Grams”), Audiard’s lugubrious style makes one wonder whether he intends to throw miserablism at his audience just to see how much they can endure. In “Rust and Bone” though, there are hardly any redeeming qualities to connect us to such unlikeable individuals, and Audiard’s direction feels entirely aggressive and not poetic at all.
At the center of Audiard’s film stand Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), two downtrodden individuals living in Antibes, France. Stephanie works at a marine park on the Cote d’Azur, training killer whales and orchestrating live-performances. Yet, even with such an exotic profession, her life reads as colorless and ordinary as her dull apartment – until she meets Ali.
Ali is a boa coiled around a gator: A tan, leathery reptile with the animalistic impulse and brute force of a bear, uncorked and untamed. If it weren’t for the fact that he looks human, you’d think he’d be in a pool wrestling orcas like the ones Stephanie tries so hard to train at Marineland. One could even stretch this association to metaphorical lengths and say that Stephanie’s biggest challenge is not training killer whales but taming an unbroken Ali. His resume speaks for itself: Boxer, bouncer, security guard and bare-knuckle fighter. He’s a fierce beast, even for the stern Stephanie.
The story connects them both through a tragic accident at the marine park where Stephanie works, as a result of which she ends up badly disabled. She confines herself to a vapid lifestyle, limited by a wheelchair and the dark, listless walls that surround her. Audiard intends for Ali to be her salvation. There’s a touching scene in which Ali wheels Stephanie down to the beach on a buoyant afternoon, and carries her out to the water. It’s one of a few passages in which we see Stephanie actually smile. She glitters and flares like a mermaid out to sea, unrestricted by her limbs or her tampered life.
However, Audiard’s erratic direction and the film’s choppy editing do nothing to solidify where exactly Stephanie and Ali are going, or even clarify who they are. Audiard’s screenplay doesn’t breathe any meaning or purpose to Ali’s and Stephanie’s actions. The script gives us no reason why Ali, a self-centered, almost heartless person, would take an interest in Stephanie. Ali reduces every woman in his life to a sexual encounter, so why would we expect him to treat Stephanie –– maimed and psychologically battered –– any better? Within the wild jungle that is Ali’s life there are some moments, mostly with Stephanie, that tap into the heart of the beast. But this is hardly a novel theme, and these heartfelt scenes are tossed within Audiard’s messy picture.
Stephanie fares better in Audiard’s wild hand, but that’s largely thanks to Marion Cotillard, who’s skilled at communicating Stephanie’s enhanced bodily awareness and unfulfilled lust, as well as conveying the building frisson between Stephanie and Ali. Even so, Cotillard also fails to imbue some clarity into this unwieldy relationship. And by the end, we’re left more confused and stranded about what place Stephanie and Ali have reached together than we were about the two lost misfits we met in the beginning.
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