Rust and Bone: foregrounding the physical

06 November 2012

Rust and bone are both physical properties. While one refers to corrosion, as in the gradual deterioration of a metal’s surface, the other suggests a breakable but ineluctably self-healing component of our bodily structure. Juxtaposed, the terms form a whole comprising two inseparable parts: a damaging process and, perhaps, a resilience to it. In Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os), the latest film directed by Jacques Audiard, the first property might stand in for the area of Antibes, where the work is set, which is defined by relative economic impoverishment, while the second property evokes the very human filter through which we experience life there. Indeed, the film foregrounds the physical reality of everyday life: its limitations, but also, more interestingly, its connective capacity.

25-year-old Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his young son arrive in Antibes, on the south-east coast of France, from Belgium, to stay with his sister and her husband. Ali’s height and physical frame help score him a job as a nightclub doorman. During his first shift, he intervenes upon a fracas and agrees to take home one of its wounded, Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard). As it turns out, Stéphanie is an orca trainer and an aqua park employee. At work soon after, however, she is injured in a freak accident that results in the amputation of both her legs. Understandably distraught, she calls Ali on a whim, and a casual no-strings relationship materialises.

Adapted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from two otherwise separate short stories in Canadian writer Craig Davidson’s anthology of the same name, Rust and Bone is a conceptually ambitious work that does well to eschew the more hysterical strands of its melodrama. Indeed, the presence of its handsome leads only draws attention to the extent to which the film resists exploiting them. Some viewers might expect a kind of narrative exceptionalism, a story that mopes over its beautiful star’s irrevocable loss and the fact she is torn away from the life she knew; other viewers might worry, meanwhile, that once Stéphanie calls Ali and the latter visits her at her new apartment, the film will focus on weepy issues of prejudice, acceptance and irrational, transcendental love.

Neither of these pressures is succumbed to. Even a scene accompanied by Katy Perry’s “Firework”, in which Stéphanie begins to mimic her orca show routine on her apartment’s balcony, is not so much corny as it is a means of evoking the kind of plausibly bland tune you’d expect to hear at an aqua park performance. (Other musical choices include John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown” and a dance remix of Springsteen’s “State Trooper”, both of which featured in TV’s The Sopranos.) As the horrific accident that results in Stéphanie’s amputation shows, Audiard for the most part directs with tact, and his and Bidegain’s script leave behind the more familiar draws of this love story. To be sure, though “prejudice” and “acceptance” might inevitably be present in certain scenes, they’re not the thematic calling cards you might suppose, and though love is the ultimate anchor here, it appears not as some nebulous abstract between quotation marks, but as a staggered, unpredictable process that emerges from the shifts in our protagonists’ mutual dependency.

Indeed, Rust and Bone’s chief strength is its refusal to retread what were surely tempting routes. Refreshingly, Ali, the working class battler whose survival instinct embraces whatever life throws his way, appears unfazed by Stéphanie’s amputation: unembarrassed to be seen with her in public, he also extends a casual proposal of sex so that she can check to see “if it still works”. Both taken aback by and taking up the offer, Stéphanie is as quietly invigorated by sexual intercourse as she is by the brutal street-fights Ali participates in for cash. Remaining strictly no-strings, however, their burgeoning relationship begins to frustrate her; returning with Ali to the same nightclub where they first met, she is stunned to see him leave with another girl.

Ali’s lack of emotional commitment finally comes to define the film, sending it in its latter stages into an uneasy conclusion that brings previously secondary threads to the narrative fore. Here, Ali’s ad-hoc work as an installer of hidden cameras in workplaces, so that employers can spy on their workforce, comes back to haunt him, when his sister is suddenly made redundant as a result of such illegal surveillance. This subplot is perhaps the closest the film comes – as others have noted – to resembling the Dardenne brothers’ work. Because it’s never the main thrust of the film, however, its symmetry and bearing on the overall story seem too sudden, and you’re left wondering if it might have made a worthy film in itself, dealing as it does with the kind of wider social fabric that’s always worth deeper exploration.

Following offbeat crime films such as Read My Lips (2001), The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and the curiously overrated A Prophet (2009), however, Audiard demonstrates here a tender touch, foregrounding romance against the bodily with a quiet experimentalism that grows on reflection, even if it appears to be as uneven as previous efforts. While A Prophet introduced us to an acting force in Tahar Rahim, Rust and Bone brings further attention to the talents of Matthias Schoenaerts, an intensely enigmatic presence in a film that already leaves much unsaid. As Stéphanie, meanwhile, Cotillard reminds us not only that she’s been wasted in Christopher Nolan’s celebrity fodder bombast, but also that Rust and Bone’s director benefits immeasurably – as he did from Emmanuelle Devos in Read My Lips – from a strong female authority.