Cotillard Dominates "Rust And Bone"

“Rust And Bone” (“De rouille et d’os”) is built like an old, beat-up bomber – not necessarily the sleekest or most reliable, but perfectly engineered to drop emotional projectiles on its audience. Appropriately, this French-language film stars a bombshell of its own, Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose,” “Inception”), and does what any other Oscar-hopeful might do. It breaks her down, piling on the despair to an almost unbearable level. But fear not – there’s enough despair to go around. Her fellow cast members aren’t spared from the misery, and when it’s all over, you’ll wonder if the journey was worth the destination. The short answer is “not quite,” as the narrative is all too unfocused, but the picture has enough strong elements to make it a worthwhile trip.

We open on a thirty-something, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), caring for his young son. Playing in the sand. Riding the bus. The brushes with which writer-director Jacques Audiard paints these scenes are a light blue, a soothing yellow – calm, bordering on serene. These moments set the stage with a sort of ultra-realism, not dulling the edges of what’s to come, but sharpening them. Soon, Ali’s destitution becomes increasingly apparent. As a bouncer at a nightclub, he encounters a provocatively dressed woman, Stephanie (Cotillard), who’s been beat up. Upon driving her home, Ali’s advances are entirely rebuffed, but not before a frosty encounter with Stephanie’s boyfriend.

But just as the initial kindly demeanor of Ali turns out to be misleading, Stephanie is hardly a freewheeling club girl. She’s an Orca trainer, and from what we can tell, an exceptionally talented one. Suddenly, as if to parallel the quickness with which any accident occurs, Stephanie is underwater, the bright blue depths of the Orca pool clouding with particles of red. We never learn exactly what happened, but the aftermath is cruelly apparent. An unaware Stephanie wakes up in a hospital bed, sans her legs below the knees. Her horrific discovery is the beginning of a long path from deep, agonizing pain to self-pity to, finally, self-discovery.

The leads eventually reconnect through a phone call, and soon they see begin to see their flaws reflected in one another. The rest of the film deals with change, acceptance, and – like this year’s “The Sessions” – sex and the disabled. Each thematic unit is given its due, but at this point the screenplay begins to fracture and never again coalesces into a single piece of storytelling. The third act features one of the year’s most distressing sequences, featuring Ali and his son, but it’s unclear what it means in the context of the narrative. It’s a random act of tragedy and it feels like the filmmakers are piling on. Does Ali need to learn one final lesson? Is he not yet capable of relating to Stephanie’s level of personal misfortune?

The special effects team elevates the picture beyond typical gloomy indie fare, as Stephanie’s disability looks consistently photorealistic. Between their digital magic and Cotillard’s devotion to the physicality of the character, Stephanie is as well realized as any CGI-aided character in recent memory. Any awards consideration that comes Cotillard’s way deserves to be split between her and the technical wizards that made the role possible. Just a decade ago it would have been unfeasible to make this story this way with anything but an overinflated budget. It’s fascinating to consider that this technology no longer just belongs to the Peter Jacksons and Michael Bays of the world.

“Rust And Bone” is never saccharine, but a bit more narrative clarity – even at the risk of cliché – would have been welcome. One of its biggest triumph is that both Ali and Stephanie get distinct arcs, from what we think they are, to what they actually are, to what they’re capable of being. Audiard’s direction is often breathtaking and the cinematography is more vivacious than anything you’ll see in a Hollywood tentpole. If you’re in the right frame of mind for something moody and occasionally bleak, “Rust And Bone” is a terrific, if uneven, fit.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 23, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriter: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenarts, Bouli Lanners, Celine Sallette
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language)