By SEAN DALY
Times Staff Writer
The relentlessly bleak, blunt French film Rust and Bone is a love story without romance, a bloody-knuckled fight picture absent a clear victor. By the end of this one — two hours that feel like six — there are no winners or losers, only exhausted survivors, audience members included.
That may sound like harsh criticism, but it's merely fair warning about the unflinching honesty and grimy worldview of acclaimed director Jacques Audiard. This is an impressive piece of moviemaking; it's just not a pleasant one, and that says a lot for a movie that's one-quarter sex scenes. A robustly talented auteur, Audiard doesn't mind getting down, dark, ugly; even his version of a happy ending in the film's final frame is a vague, precarious arrangement.
Set in France's Cote d'Azur — as shot by cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, never has such a sunny place felt so hopeless — Rust and Bone entangles the wayward lives of Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer-whale trainer at Marineland, and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a destitute single father who seeks shelter in the home of his wary grocery-clerk sister.
Ali is a man of few words but constant animalistic action, much to the detriment of his parenting. Thanks to his hulking stature and boxing past, Ali gets a bouncer gig at a club. This is where Stephanie, having ditched her dullard boyfriend, gets into a bloody, drunken scrap and needs a lift home. Ali leaves her his number, and she eventually uses it, but only when her life becomes as pathetic as his.
Cotillard is a striking actor, all saucer eyes and simmering understated appeal, and yet she mutes her incandescence here, especially when Stephanie loses both legs below the knees after an accident at work and falls into depression. (For such a naturalistic picture, the special effects are shockingly seamless; never does the camera shy from the amputation.)
Unable to work with orcas — brutal beasts yet graceful when trained — she turns to the closest thing: Ali. "If we continue, we have to do it right … not like animals," she scolds him at one point. And yet it's Ali's thoughtlessness — especially in bed, where he pays no heed to her new limitations, almost to the point of injury — that actually draws her closer. When he callously goes for a swim in front of her, she gets so frustrated she hits the water, too.
Cotillard was nominated for a Golden Globe; some believed she'd get an Oscar nod as well. (She didn't.) The scene in which she first awakens in the hospital — "What did you do with my legs?" she screams repeatedly — is an unforgettable moment. But for as good as she is, Schoenaerts, a strapping Belgian with hunky burn, is the revelation here. Ali is not a bad man, and yet when he's especially forceful with his 5-year-old son, he shrugs off the violence. The only time he gets excited about anything is when he's beating the tar out of someone in profitable underground fight clubs.
If Schoenaerts would have tilted his portrayal in either direction — mentally challenged or sociopathic — the film would have collapsed. Instead, he plays Ali as a man with simple forward urges, including picking up a woman at a nightclub right in front of a quietly devastated Stephanie.
But such is the unfair world of Rust and Bone. Instead of ditching this mook for his wayward appetites, Stephanie soon becomes his de facto fight manager. Even in the film's final turn, when Ali pretty much abandons everyone and is witness to a horrific near-tragedy (too much!), the whale trainer can't stay away from her new wild pet. If you have any energy left after seeing this one, you just might roll your eyes at her.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.