Jacques Audiard’s latest is a melodramatic, angst-ridden triumph, writes Donald Clarke
There’s a great deal of conflict in the peculiar new film from French maestro Jacques Audiard. People are constantly getting punched, suffering awful catastrophes and falling out of love with each other. But the most intriguing battle is, perhaps, that between the two lead actors and the wild, undisciplined bouquet of plots. On balance – though it’s a close-run thing – Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard just about fight their way free from the narrative jungle. They are not, of course, asked to struggle alone. This is a beautifully acted and gorgeously shot film. The director of A Prophet and The
Beat My Heart Skipped confirms his gift for finding poetry in moral squalor. Stephane Fontaine, Audiard’s regular cinematographer, surrounds the action with a soupy fuzz that echoes the film’s spiritual uncertainty. It’s just a shame the story remains so disordered.
The problems stem from Audiard’s decision to work from a series of short stories by Canadian author Craig Davidson. Many of the plots seem robust enough to serve as the basis for a movie. But they don’t always fit together snugly. We begin with Alain (Schoenaerts), apparently homeless, travelling to the south of France with his young son. Rust and Bone is produced by the Dardenne brothers’ production company and the opening sequence throbs with their anxious naturalism. Alain gathers food where he can. The father and son catch sleep in any unoccupied corner.
Eventually they end up staying with Alain’s harassed sister. He finds a few dead-end jobs: security guard, bouncer, a scam involving the installation of surveillance cameras.
The action properly kicks off when he rescues Stephanie (Cotillard), a distracted young woman, from a fight at a noisy club. It transpires that she is (of all things) a trainer of killer whales. Some short time later, following an accident that severs both her legs, the two embark on an eventful, turbulent romance.
The two lead performances are faultless. Schoenaerts manages to dredge up enough charisma to compensate for his character’s stubborn amorality and intellectual laziness. Cotillard has a sad intensity that calls out for such extravagantly damaged roles. Bashing sweatily against one another – literally and figuratively – the couple offer an effective study of incompatible particles forced together by inexplicable natural forces.
If the film concentrated its attention solely on that relationship then Audiard might have delivered a copper-bottomed classic. But Rust and Bone has other stories to tell. That subplot about the surveillance cameras wanders down a meandering side-road to nowhere very much. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the world of bare-knuckle boxing. In the final third – virtually from nowhere – an awful trauma arrives to nudge the action towards full-blooded, fan-your-armpits melodrama.
Throughout all this, the film wallows in the sort of fashionably butch angst that characterises the writing of such toy existentialists as Chuck Palahniuk and Michel Houellebecq. Nobody knows what a joke is. Everybody clutches a string attached to his or her own personal cloud. One can understand why a person might feel a tad gloomy after losing their legs in a marine park. The other characters wear their depression as a kind of trivial ornament.
For all that, Rust and Bone still emerges as a very impressive achievement from a director who – though possessed of a recognisable voice – seems intent on stretching himself with each new project. The film ends up looking like a triumphant response to a forbidding challenge. Is it possible to make a serious film from a collection of unlikely, melodramatic stories that refuse to bind themselves together into any kind of cohesive mass? It seems so. A leap of faith may, however, be necessary from the audience.