With 2010's “A Prophet,” a raw and mesmerizing portrait of an immigrant gangster building an empire from inside a Parisian prison, director Jacques Audiard made an impressive leap forward with his visions of life on the margins of French society.
Audiard continues to focus on those margins with “Rust and Bone,” but while his previous film reimagined the Mafia epic for modern times, “Rust and Bone” offers an unusually realistic romance between two unlikely lovers.
This cautious and difficult romance between streetfighter Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a disabled former trainer at a Sea World-style marine park, takes place in the slums of paradise, the poor suburbs of the French Riviera. Ali is barely employed and is only recently — and barely — taking responsibility for 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure), and the freak accident that forced doctors to amputate Stephanie's legs at the knees has left her emotionally broken and near suicide.
As the two people begin their cautious relationship, each is barely hanging on. Ali and Sam are forced to live with Ali's sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), a supermarket cashier who clearly has been burned a few times by her brother's opportunistic, fly-by-night regard for his family.
But despite his many faults, Ali is the best hope for Stephanie, who is alone, devastated and needs any help she can get.
Schoenaerts is effective as the untamed urban brawler, but Cotillard is the standout — her Stephanie is a bundle of misfiring exposed nerves, and the performance is fully worthy of her recent Golden Globes nomination.
Audiard's selection of a street-fighting kickboxer and an orca trainer as main characters almost seems like a response to a writing workshop challenge, but “Rust and Bone” takes these spare parts and creates something resonant and deeply moving.
Ultimately, the story finds its greatest emotional pull over whether Ali can be who he needs to be for both Stephanie and his little boy, and whether their lives on the margins can be made less marginal.
— George Lang