By turns brutal and tender, Rust and Bone is a bullet train of heightened melodrama that refuses to derail. Of course, like all melodrama, it requires a major suspension of disbelief. So bring along a crane, but know that the principals here, both before and behind the camera, do some impressive lifting themselves. The lead actors deliver a matched set of raw performances and the direction, like the script, moves boldly from stark to lyrical and back again. In short, energy abounds – no one could possibly accuse this picture of idleness.
Even its origins are kinetic. French director Jacques Audiard has rooted around in a short-story collection by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, taken an idea here and a character there, then spun the borrowings into an entirely new tale. Essentially, it’s a Beauty and the Beast story with a contemporary shape, aspiring to free-float into a classic romance while still remaining grounded in today’s harsh realities. If that sounds too ambitious, it is – but the overreaching definitely has its rewards.
We begin with the Beast, literally shouldering his burden. On the city streets, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is carrying his five-year old son Sam, a boy he seems to have unexpectedly inherited from his ex-wife (“They used the kid to smuggle drugs”). The two are homeless and broke, prompting Dad to start stealing – first a small toy to placate Sam, then a berth on a southbound train. They arrive in Antibes for a reunion with Ali’s estranged sister who, taking pity on the child, invites them to stay. An ex-boxer, the Beast soon gets a job in keeping with his skills – a bouncer in a nightclub.
That’s where Beauty enters in a short skirt. Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) definitely hails from the right side of the tracks, although, out slumming, she allows the burly Ali to drive her home. But they immediately part – their kind doesn’t mix. Not that she doesn’t have a taste for the primal, yet it’s satisfied by her job. Stéphanie trains orca whales at a Marineland, at least until one of the mammals turns killer. Audiard cuts to a hospital bed: Beauty awakes from her coma, peers beneath the white sheets, and the shock hits with harrowing force: Both her legs are amputated above the knee.
Yes, the melodrama starts, soon followed by the romance – a very odd and intriguing variety. Depressed after months of rehab, Stéphanie remembers Ali and spontaneously invites him to her apartment. There, he regards her transformed body with neither pity nor compassion, but rather with a kind of primitive acceptance. For the Beast, tragedy is just a hazard of the jungle. So Ali wheels her to the beach and, shouldering another burden, carries her into the ocean where, still a strong swimmer, she experiences a bliss that seemed forever lost – freedom of motion. It’s a gorgeous scene, coolly dispassionate and yet wonderfully
Then its right back to brutishness, when Ali takes up bare-knuckle fighting in a back-alley ring. He’s motivated partly by the money but mainly by “the fun” – for him, the adrenalin high is what passes for emotion. Similarly excited, Stéphanie eventually becomes his manager – one orca exchanged for another – and his lover too. For her, the sex is a compromised mix of the clinical and the cleansing: He lacks feeling, but he lacks guile too, and doesn’t flinch at her wound.
In portraying this strange symbiosis, Schoenaerts is compelling in his very neutrality, his eyes as cold as a camera lens. By contrast, Cotillard (her legless state comes courtesy of CGI) is obliged to run the emotional gamut, yet always within the narrow range of her damaged character. That’s a tricky balance, which only an actor of Cotillard’s talent could manage – capturing Beauty’s fire without betraying the ice.
Too bad the film settles for a climax that, even by melodrama’s forgiving standards, feels forced and contrived, trying to squeeze an unconventional romance back into a conventional frame. Maim the Beauty and you may win our hearts, but tame the Beast and you just lose his mystery.