The common state of play for World Cinema directors these days is to capture life as gritty and dirty as they can find it, then chuck in as much perversity as possible in the hope that critics will raise more than an eyebrow and remark how marvellously different it is from Hollywood. But what really should be different is not the amount of skin on show, but the exquisiteness of its visual poetry and a deep exploration of emotions and relationships, all of which are lacking in the Hollywood machine, master as it is of the bombastic external plot.
Where Rust and Bone stands head, shoulders, and fists above is in its construction of this internal struggle within emphatic characters. On first sight, Marion Cotillard’s Stéphanie is somewhat wayward and unsavory; after all, she dresses ‘like a whore’ as Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) observes in their first scene together. But in her day job as an Orca trainer we uncover a quiet, beautiful spark she lacks in her personal life. So when she suffers a life–changing accident doing the one thing she loves you can’t help but feel drawn to her as she tries to grasp onto whatever meaning is left in her life.
It’s in this uncertainty that boxer Ali bulldozes into the frame, a piece of meat with little to no emotional maturity, evident in his poor attempts to father his own son. But again, despite an unpleasant façade there is something to be enjoyed in his strong taste for the immediacy of life. An immediacy which galvanizes a withering Stéphanie away from depression to become an emotional rock for Ali himself; a relationship is forged where one leg holds up the other.
Director Jacques Audiard adopts a camera style that is somewhere between naturalistic and visceral, with everything shown in the same way it would be physically felt. The lens focuses with intensity on each devastating impact, from an Orca squeaking across a wet surface and crashing through steel to a fist pummelling through flesh and teeth. Simultaneously, the less severely felt happenings are more subtle with a softened focus.
On paper, the soundtrack is dubious. ‘Love Shack’ by the B-52s and Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ wouldn’t be obvious choices for the filmmaker behind A Prophet. Yet in their execution they work to powerfully highlight positive character changes, shaking up the prominently somber mood. Perry’s mainstream and cheesy ‘Firework’ is in fact used twice and the second time it becomes incredibly potent and loaded given its first manifestation as the soundtrack to Stéphanie’s horrific accident.
There may be some structural confusion as to whose story this really is and who is the most important by the end; is Stéphanie or Ali the main character? The likely answer is that they are both our protagonists, or in fact, the relationship should be our main point of interest, because in their shared misery at being dealt tough hands their only true escape is -– yes, I’m saying it -– each other.
Rust and Bone is uplifting in its confirmation of a silent reality we may understand yet choose to ignore: even though shit will hit the fan at some point in all our lives — emotionally, physically, in every way possible — we must come out the other end, maybe battered, most likely bruised, but still at least comforted by each other. Yes, I said it again.