Rust and Bone

Marion Cotillard, as an amputee whale trainer, is both raw and lovely in Jacques Audiard's gritty film.

A study of two disabled people -- one physically, the other emotionally -- and the extreme states to which they must be pushed in order to connect, Rust and Bone tells a relatively conventional story in a disciplined, unindulgent manner. Absorbing if somewhat predictable in its dramatic trajectory, Jacques Audiard's follow-up to his powerhouse prison yarn, A Prophet, benefits from unvarnished, forthright performances from Marion Cotillard and Bullhead hunk Matthias Schoenaerts, as well as from the utterly convincing representation of the former's amputee state.

Opening in France on May 17, the same day as its premiere in the Cannes competition, this high-profile French production, which Sony Classics acquired for the United States pre-Cannes, looks to generate solid commercial returns in most territories.

Returning to French cinema after a string of big Hollywood titles in the wake of her La Vie en Rose Oscar, Cotillard is completely deglamourized here, appearing without makeup and frequently in harsh light as Stephanie, a French Marineland whale trainer deprived of her legs in a terrible accident during a public performance. But the first half-hour focuses on sullen, impulsive and broke Ali (Schoenaerts), who, with his cute 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), trains from the North to Antibes to barge in on his sister (Corinne Masiero) and her man.

Taking work as a bouncer at a club, where he helps Stephanie out after an altercation, then as a security guard, Ali is ill-equipped to tend to Sam. Stifling uncharted depths of rage and frustration, Ali has boxed in the past and is drawn into back-alley, anything-goes fights, which quickly bring him some tidy earnings.

Audiard's visual and dramatic approach is glancing, deliberately fragmented, marked by harsh contrasts between bright, bleached-out light and forbidding darkness. Charged emotions are felt and expressed but remain contained and not wallowed in. When Stephanie awakens in the hospital after her accident and realizes what's happened to her, the dreadfulness of her discovery is palpable. But soon enough it's absorbed, to the point where she calls Ali to take her on an outing (to the Croisette in Cannes), where he takes her back into the water.

As much as both of these fundamentally solitary characters are in need of help and emotional support, Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain hold back, presenting the main characters from the outside and keeping their deepest feelings implicit. It's easy, of course, to imagine what Stephanie is enduring, though, all things considered, she bounces back quickly, acquiring a set of mechanical legs that allow her to get around, and even drive, before long. Avoiding the routine, the film pays little attention to her rehab, which proceeds without incident.

What Ali might be feeling remains uncertain, though the drama achieves a new focus after Stephanie and Ali discuss their sex lives and the latter bluntly volunteers to help her resolve her uncertainty over whether "it still works." Lo and behold, it does -- though this, too, is underplayed in favor of concentration on Ali's fighting career, which Stephanie begins to find surprisingly alluring.

Although unstressed, the tenuous economic situation of Ali's family and the gambling fight crowd is ever present, as is anxiety over his appealing but so often ignored son. All the characters here are just one step from going over the edge, and when they do, it's a question of whether anyone around them can find it within themselves to help them out.

Ultimately, Rust and Bone emerges as a study of human frailty and strength, the habitual tendency toward the former and the unexpected assertions of the latter. The polarities of Audiard's storytelling and visual approach have been crafted to reinforce this duality, with the film gathering focus and power in the second half.

With overt histrionics having been largely bridled by Audiard, Cotillard and Schoenaerts give heavily internalized performances marked by sporadic physical outbursts involving athletics and sex. Cotillard's loveliest moments come late as, emboldened by the start of a physical and emotional reawakening, she wordlessly expresses Stephanie's growing awareness of a potentially positive future for herself. For Ali, it takes a major trauma to penetrate his thick skull and turn his attitude around.

There is a gritty elegance to the filmmaking, while the soundtrack features a rich mix of Alexandre Desplat's original score and many song selections.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriters: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, based on Rust and Bone by Craig Davidson

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