Like Melville’s great white whale or the dogs in Amores Perros, the orcas and puppies in Rust and Bone (De Rouille et D’os) are meant to be symbolic. Here in Jacques Audiard’s audacious new film they represent the unpredictable id of nature and the strained relationships of the ego-driven humans who interact with them. Brilliantly, all is foreshadowed in the opening credits shot like a dream…or is it a nightmare? But there’s a constant movement and a focus on legs with somewhere to go. Life is fluid and on the move. We are all travelers in this drama.
Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts, in another physically demanding performance following last year’s Bullhead) is a Belgian man living on the fringe with his five-year old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), and who eventually hitchhikes his way to Antibes where his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) takes them in. There Alain finds random security gigs while plotting a return to underground fighting. One of his gigs is at a nightclub where he first meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard, a revelation), an orca trainer at a local resort starving for real human connection.
It’s not spoiling anything to speak of the horrific accident Stephanie has at the water park that leaves her without legs. Cotillard, so well-known now as Christopher Nolan’s lilting noirish muse, is a completely different actress when speaking her native French. She’s confident, brusque, her voice husky…strained…and her depiction of Stephanie is about as far as one could get from her Oscar-winning turn as the little sparrow, fragile and doomed Edith Piaf. One would think Stephanie is doomed, too, but her accident leads her to reach out to Alain, and the evolution of their relationship and how it heals two troubled souls becomes the film’s focus. Cotillard is so convincing in her performance, she leads you to believe she is an actual double amputee, and the make-up and special effects team does wonders to help in this grand illusion.
The characters at various times long to live like animals and return to a seemingly simpler existence. Little Sam takes refuge in the doghouse of his aunt’s puppies as a way to shield himself from his unpredictable father, as likely in his affections as he is in lashing out. Stephanie takes comfort in being able to control the whales for the show of it, to have everyone watching her. Notice how Audiard and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine focus on how the three main characters use their hands to define their place in the world with the little boy waving his arm to flag down the truck that takes him first to Antibes, his father using his fists more for fun than to make a living, and the woman meditative in the movements of her hands and arms directing the whales. But the world is a cruel and indifferent place, and when living with animals and acting like animals, the beasts are bound to violence. But Sam still loves his father. And Stephanie never once blames the whales for what happened to her. After all, they’re just captives in this crazy world, too.
But Stephanie in one pivotal scene asks Alain pointedly where they are headed together. “Shall we continue…but not like animals anymore?” she asks him. Alain’s has always been a physical journey, and he eventually leaves. Stephanie’s is spiritual. Can they still one day intersect and bring about the better versions of themselves? It’s only after a gut-dropping snow-covered sequence on a frozen lake near the end of the film where Alain finally realizes, in the most instinctual of ways, that his fists can be used not only for selfish reasons, but for selfless reasons.
Audiard displays a unique POV when depicting the most harrowing events, whether it’s an orca crushing a platform or a person slipping through cracked ice. We’re in the periphery. The tragedy is in the background, or obscured…off camera. Such is life. Likewise, the sex scenes, though far from shy, are treated with a similar delicacy, and the violence of the fistfights is visceral but not overdone. Audiard wallows in nothing. He judges no one. He observes. He pulls in close. He pans away. Images are blurred, shadowed or over-lit and contorted and edited with the edge of a knife cutting through a dream.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is among the best he’s ever done, and Audiard weaves in pop music in unusual ways. Who would’ve thought a Katy Perry song could be used in the service of such genuine uplift? Well, witness the scene of Cotillard on the balcony after she first sees the light at the end of the dark tunnel and try not to be moved.
Some might find the film disjointed (it evolved from a short story by Craig Davidson), contrived or straining in credulity. Like many layered works of art heavy on symbolism, the film will be defined by what the audience brings to it and desires to take away. Ultimately the film is about how people overcome their hedonistic natures through their relationships with others and the wild animals around them, through forgiveness and through great fortitude of spirit when faced with hardship. The narrative might be melodramatic but the delivery is both raw and subtle, and the film depicts the evolution of what it means to be human.
As such, Rust and Bone is one of 2012’s most unforgettable films.
Written by David H. Schleicher