French writer/director Jacques Audiard, like Oliver Stone and the late Tony Scott, is at his best depicting a man’s world. I mean this stereotypically speaking, with “man” indicative of greed, competition, professionalism, and primal power. Stone romanticizes, Scott hyper-stylized, and Audiard realizes, with a bleakness that feels organic to the story rather than shoehorned in. Evidently with his 1996 film “A Self-Made Hero” and 2009’s masterpiece-and-then-some “A Prophet,” Audiard is an expert assessor of the criminal underworld. He’s walked a mile in its moccasins.
“Rust and Bone,” Audiard’s latest film, aims to merge this “man’s world” with one I think its director understands far less. Films should be learning experiences, yes, even for their directors, but “Rust and Bone,” while highly watchable thanks to Audiard’s intoxicating (this time, less reserved) style, is an example when the director’s knowledge of one world is reduced by his unrefined grasp of the other: disability.
Surprisingly, this is not new territory for Audiard. His 2001 work “Read My Lips” similarly depicted an unexpected affinity between an ex-convict (Vincent Cassel) and a deaf office secretary (Emmanuelle Devos). But there, like in “Rust and Bone,” Audiard doesn’t understand the female character’s condition. He was unable to properly realize, like he did with the ex-con’s complicity in the French mafia, the secretary’s marginalization, being female and disabled, in a predominantly male work force.
I find, between “Read My Lips” and now “Rust and Bone,” something too schematic and contrived with the way Audiard crafts the central unlikely relationship of these stories. Unlikeliness isn’t the issue, mind you, but rather Audiard’s reductionism of the female’s world (one, for Audiard, always involves some form of mental or physical disability) versus his acute and bitingly tough portraits of machismo in the man’s world of crime. What we have instead are two lopsided character portraits that spend the movie’s duration trying to, in vain, thoughtfully come together.
To his credit, Audiard’s heady punctuations of style in “Rust and Bone” do not inspire a boring experience. Despite its flaws, the film maintains our interest. Much of this is due to the gravitational pull of the two leads and Audiard’s flashy and fluid frame – with its azure color scheme, effective lens flares (yes, “effective”), and stimulating camera angles. The effect is “Shame”-like: an evocation of sensation over raw emotion. This movie is what “Read My Lips” wasn’t: it’s perfectly visceral.
Also, Audiard deserves nothing less than adoration for his male casting choices. You have Mathieu Kassovitz in “A Self-Made Hero”; Vincent Cassel in “Read My Lips”; Romain Duris in “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”; Tahar Rahim in “A Prophet” (not to mention Niels Arestrup); and now “Bullhead”’s Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor who resembles Marlon Brando with his brawny torment and dead-pig eyes (Brando: “I have eyes like those of a dead pig).
In “Rust and Bone” Schoenaerts plays Ali, a 25 year-old Belgian man who, penniless and left in charge of his five year old son Sam (Armand Verdure), moves to Antibes, France to find work and live with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero). He starts off bouncing at a night club, where he rescues Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) from an altercation. He drives her home and then casually asks himself in to get ice for his busted knuckles. We sense an energy, a desperate chemistry between these two, especially when Stéphanie’s crude (they always are) boyfriend walks in.
“Rust and Bone” tries to reach lift-off speed when Stéphanie, a killer whale trainer, loses her legs in a marine show gone awry. Hapless and alone, Stéphanie calls Ali who then becomes her aid and protector. But it’s not only Stéphanie with the problems. Ali is also damaged, an angry broken soul who struggles to support his son and has random sex at the gym. But Ali’s a provider, so he channels his frustration where it counts: making bank in illegal back-alley brawls.
From here “Rust and Bone,” like “Read My Lips,” follows a similar arc: it shows how two people, leading very different lives, serendipitously come together to fill a personal void. Ali’s backstory with the illegal fighting ring is engaging, because that’s Audiard’s go-to territory. With Stéphanie, Audiard is less successful. Cotillard fits into the character well, but Audiard fashions her into an unnatural series of attitudes instead of fleshing her out.
You get the sense Audiard is unable to tell Stéphanie’s personal tragedy. The scene where Stéphanie finds sanctuary at an aquarium to the bubbly beat of Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” is a perfect example of how Audiard goes wrong, attempting only to uplift when matters are really a lot more complicated. When Stéphanie is introduced to Ali’s lifestyle, the movie seems to be thinning because we’re never sure where these two people’s minds are meeting.
I have other reservations. Why does the story of Ali and Stéphanie’s relationship take the easy route? Why do we get to know so little about Ali’s sister (she’s only sullen)? Why does his son remain only that cute kid? Why that final contrived scene at the lake? I knew where that one was going.
However, I’d be lying if I said I was bored or uninterested. Audiard is deft at controlling space and tension, even if at times the latter feels tacked on. Schoenaerts and Cotillard captivate, arousing our sympathy despite the tenuousness of their characters. While I expect more from Audiard, the movie is still observant and intimate, touching us even when it doesn’t have enough to say. “Rust and Bone” may fail to come together, but it somehow stays an absorbing and glossy assembly of its uneven parts.
“Rust and Bone” premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, September 6 at 9:30pm at the Elgin. It plays one more time on Friday, September 7 at 12:00pm at the Ryerson Theatre.
“Rust and Bone” will be in limited release on November 30, 2012.
CAST: Matthias Schoenaerts, Marion Cotillard DIRECTOR: Jacques Audiard SCREENWRITERS: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain PRODUCERS: Jacques Audiard, Martine Cassinelli, Pascal Caucheteux RUN TIME: 120 minutes MPAA: R
Parker Mott is a Canadian filmmaker and freelance film critic from Toronto, ON. He finds inspiration in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog. His favourite films are “Goodfellas”, “Fargo”, and “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Currently, he is in pre-production for a Kafkaesque film called “Mayfly”, which will be just downright weird.