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Rust and Bone

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone.

Beauty and the beast

Rust and Bone

“Not again,” you may be saying to yourself when confronted by the standard description of this new French film. “Not another movie about a brute who comes to the rescue of a fine soul confined to a wheelchair. Not another movie about the sex life of a disabled person.”

In a year which has already given us the mawkish The Intouchables and the rather better The Sessions, those are valid worries. But while those descriptions are not unrelated to Rust and Bone, they hardly serve as adequate description of the movie.

It’s not surprising that the majority of attention in the American press is going to Marion Cotillard, who followed her Oscar-winning performance as Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose with a series of bland Hollywood roles. She co-stars here as Stéphanie, whose life is disrupted by a terrible accident that threatens to leave her confined to a utility apartment.

But as strong as her performance is, the film’s real protagonist is Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a hard-case wanderer of no fixed trade. We first meet him on the road with his five-year-old son Sam, who has come under his care after his mother proved incapable. Hitching rides and scavenging for leftover food, Alain is taken Sam to the port city of Antibes to stay with his sister while he looks for work. She is a supermarket cashier living with a trucker; their life isn’t easy, but it’s not too hard to make room for a few more.

In these opening minutes, director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) strikes a balance between melodrama and sentimentality. We are in a blue-collar world where subsistence is never taken for granted, but not one that wants to romanticize the poor.

Lacking any apparent trade, Alain gets work as a bouncer, then as a security guard. In the past he was a kickboxer, maybe even won some awards, and when the opportunity comes along to make some money as a street fighter he takes it.

Rust and Bone is so much better at depicting these characters, doing so primarily through actions rather than speeches, that it feels like a disservice to the film to reduce it to verbal description. Alain and Stéphanie become companions. They have sex in what starts as a friendly way. He doesn’t condescend to her, reacting to her strengths rather than what she sees as her lacks. But is that a recipe for love and a relationship? Not in his eyes.

Audiard’s script was adapted from a book of short stories by the Canadian writer Craig Davidson, whose fans like to compare him to Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club). It relies primarily on two of the stories but incorporates bit of others, and the result is a bit scattershot, with intimations of offscreen events that aren’t followed up.

But then, Audiard doesn’t like to be blunt about the events he does deal with. It’s a subtitled film that could almost do without the subtitles entirely for all the role dialogue plays here. Much of what happens we infer or intuit from what we see. It’s a risky way to tell a story, but Audiard uses it to powerful effect, drawing us into these lives almost subconsciously. His use of handheld cameras to give events immediacy, along with digital effects that succeed at being utterly invisible, bring this milieu alive despite the occasionally melodramatic turns of the story.

Watch the trailer for Rust and Bone

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