A tour-de-force of violence and casual love, Jacques Audiard’s Rust And Bone sees the human spirit triumph over the body’s all-too-vulnerable fragility.
The Sea Inside by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
As with The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, the equally enigmatic title of Jacques Audiard’s latest film Rust And Bone is likely to keep audiences guessing. Above all, it’s a reference to the crushing, destructive power of nature and man’s daily fight against the elements to survive. Nowhere has Audiard been so elemental, conferring beautiful yearning vistas upon the sea worthy of Luc Besson’s Le Grand Bleu. In Rust And Bone water is a powerful, destructive force, given almost the ability to bite. The opening credits are a watery morass of dirt, floating debris and limp childlike arms, and it’s never quite described how Stéphanie loses her legs, violence lurking beneath the glossy sheen. Sunlight on the other hand is a life-giving force, nourishing and strengthening its sungazers. And positioned as it is on the Côte d’Azur, there’s no better place than Antibes for Audiard’s elemental drama to play out of life versus death.
Ali arrives in town, unemployed, penniless and homeless, with young son Sam in tow like a weight around his thick, muscled neck. They survive on food rummaged from train bins and pawned stolen cameras – Sam anxiously unaware of why he’s been so suddenly abandoned. Picking up a relationship with his sister after five years of silence, it’s an awkward reunion, but he finds food, a bed and a courtyard of neighbours willing to look after his boy. Still, it’s a daily grind to make ends meet, and Ali and his nearest and dearest scratch out a living by taking food beyond its sell-by-date out of supermarket bins and breeding puppies on the side to earn a bit of extra cash. Ali has landed on his feet, and while working as a bouncer he meets Stéphanie, a whale trainer and pricktease, who likes to dance and be watched. And it’s only after her life-changing accident at Marineland, that she finds herself freed from her abusive relationship and miserably alone.
Stéphanie’s heartbreaking wail, “What have you done to my legs?” is where Rust And Bone really kicks off, and Marion Cotillard’s performance as the girl coming to terms with life without legs is exceptional. She’s suicidal, secreting a scalpel into her hospital bed, and then depressed, sitting motionlessly in a wheelchair in her gloomy apartment, curtains drawn on the life beyond. But, calling Ali out of the blue, she forces herself to embrace life again. He pays no heed to her disability or fragile psyche, breaking down her boundaries and bringing her back to life with swimming and sex.
It’s Ali who gives Stéphanie her body back, her freedom in the water echoed in her freedom to escape the present, as she imagines training orcas from her balcony, beautifully poised and beyond regret. And like the whale who obediently copies her gestures on the other side of the glass, there’s a life-affirming victory over nature that neither bionic legs nor wheelchairs can erode. And yet, Stéphanie’s also not the girl she once was, and upon returning to the Annexe nightclub with Ali, she’s painfully aware of other girls dancing, self-consciously covering her legs – even if, upon glassing a suitor who fumbles over her prosthetic legs, we catch a glimpse of her former self.
Ali meanwhile is a ferocious ball of energy, and Matthias Schoenaerts is astonishing as the bare-knuckle-fighting security supervisor. He’s barely at home to care for his kid, working out at the gym, screwing or installing illegal cameras to spy on thieving employees, but it’s through his illicit prize fights that he can both pay his way and buy his son a toy digger. There’s an emotional need to fight that allows him to vent anger and aggression, but it’s also more than that. And like in De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté or David Fincher’s Fight Club Ali thrives on the fight, on the heightened experience of adrenaline, blood and bruises, his brute strength unable to stomach the small indoors.
Ali’s indefatigable lust for life makes him a survivor, and yet he’s unable and unwilling to commit to love. His bond with Sam, like all the relationships in his life, is half-cocked and fractious, washing his son down with a hose when he dirties himself playing in the puppies’ kennel and unintentionally knocking him off the furniture after an anxious tantrum. It’s a distance which even sees Sam call his father Ali rather than Dad. He’s unable to commit to Stéphanie either, and it’s a long way into their relationship before Stéphanie discovers Ali has a son. His unromantic matter-of-factness (“You wanna fuck?”) is a refusal of life’s more complicated emotions, and it’s at his instigation that they remain friends with benefits, with no kisses on the lips or bises goodbye. And despite helping Stéphanie piss at night, their friendship of horny text messages is as close as he comes to a normal relationship.
After his sister is fired for stealing from the supermarket she works at and he’s thrown out of the house for colluding with the white-collar enemy, Ali abandons all ties to become a professional boxer in the Alps. Even Stéphanie, with her open-armed acceptance of his unquestionable independence, his other lovers and his clandestine world of street fighting, can’t hurry Ali’s love. And it’s not until Sam almost dies, trapped under alpine sheet ice and saved by his father smashing through with bloody, broken knuckles that Ali grasps the importance of those that love him and opens himself up to commitment. With Sam in a coma, he bawls down the phone to Stéphanie, confessing his love to her and for his son with a hitherto unfathomable, “Don’t leave me. I love you.” Like the 27 bones in the human hand, this wild steer’s been broken. And while the body heals, there’s still a lingering pain that just won’t go away.
Bruised and broken, these fractured limbs, like the bloody fingers of The Beat That My Heart Skipped are a sign of life beyond the watery stasis of money, food and sex. It’s an elemental drama of crushing violence and bitter socio-economic survival, but above all Jacques Audiard’s Rust And Bone is a story of love which, at its most brutal, can triumph over the implacable indifference of nature. And, as Ali and Stéphanie both find the courage to live and to love, they prove the human spirit isn’t so easily reduced to rust and bone.
Rust And Bone is released in the UK on 2nd November 2012