Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: "Rust and Bone"

"Rust and Bone" isn't about the relationship between two characters so much as their intersection.

These are people leading separate and very different lives until a random encounter at a bar. She gets into a drunken scrap, and he is the bouncer who helps her get home. Things would probably have ended there, except that she suffers a horrible tragedy and reaches out to someone, anyone who can serve as a lifeline. He's available and willing, and they form a bond that is something more than friendship, but less than soul mates.

Marion Cotillard gives a brave, understated performance as Stéphanie, a woman who trains orca whales at the French equivalent of Sea World. She loves her job, though it's clear from her expression during a performance that it's gotten a bit stale for her. Then an accident occurs, the stage supporting the trainers crashes into the water tank, and Stéphanie wakes up in the hospital to find both her legs have been amputated.

"What have you done with my legs?!?" she shrieks at the helpless nurse, in a scene that pierces us with its emotional thrust.

Director Jacques Audiard ("A Prophet"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain based on a short story by Craig Davidson, is circumspect about what exactly happened to her. Shots of the killer whale approaching with teeth thrashing would suggest that the panicked animal bit off her legs. No one else from the show was apparently injured, so this seems the best explanation.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a young roustabout with a 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), in tow. When we first meet them, they are riding on a train, hungry and desperate. Ali scrapes together leftover food from the empty seats to keep them fed. He boosts a phone from a store, fleeing the security as Sam stands a few feet away.

We're not exactly sure what has happened, but the pair is completely indigent. They are traveling to Ali's sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero) for refuge. Ali has worked itinerant as a security guard, and manages to cobble together a couple of jobs at the bar and night security at a big-box store.

At the latter he meets Martial (Bouli Lanners), who installs secret cameras throughout the store. Ostensibly these are to monitor the customers, but Martial confides they are actually to spy on the employees. Martial also runs a side business managing street fighters, and recruits Ali. It's fast money, and a lot of it, so he's eager to dive in, shrugging off the threat of injury.

Neither Ali or Stéphanie are perfect, or even necessarily good, people. Stéphanie confesses that her relationships with men involve her teasing and taunting them, getting them turned on and then dumping them when she soon grows bored. There's no hint of what happened to her current beau after her accident, but either he took off her she shut him out. She spends a few months isolating herself in a convalescence home, seeing virtually no one until she gives Ali a call out of the blue.

Ali is both easier and harder to understand. He exists as pure id, a man comfortable with physical brutality who does not seem to spend more than a few seconds pondering anything. When people ask him how he is, he tends to just say "normal" or "OP," meaning operational. To him, as long as there is food, work, a place to sleep, someone to watch over his kid (something he tends to slack off on) and occasional sex, life is grand.

To say that Ali is not in touch with his feelings is an understatement; he's not in touch with anyone else's feelings, either. Sometimes we get the sense he's unacquainted with the very concept of feelings.

The push and pull of their relationship goes back and forth. At first she is the driver, leaning on Ali (literally) to help get her out of her shut-in funk. He takes her to the beach for a swim, out to social events, and even offers to sleep with her to find out if her libido has survived her ordeal. (It has. Libidos tend to survive just about everything.)

But then Ali starts to subtly push her away. He waits until they're fairly deep into their friendship before he even reveals he has a son. He takes her with him to his illegal fights. He takes her to a club and then picks up another woman and leaves with her.

I enjoyed "Rust and Bone" for its strong performances, even as I never really felt like I got under the characters' skins. Ali exists as a Stanley Kowalski-esque primal beast, and her attraction to him is laced with an undercurrent of repulsion that's difficult to grasp.

The story is organic to the point of feeling unstructured, as events unspool without much rhyme or reason. The characters drift about, crashing into each other and then sliding away, so the impacts aren't as forceful as they might be. A little more narrative coherence would have served the filmmakers better.

2.5 stars out of four

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