Whales and Knuckles
One good thing about operating a no-spoiler policy when reviewing films is that occasionally it prevents you from using some of the most obviously tasteless gags that might otherwise occur to you (if you are afflicted with a mind like mine, anyway). Going beyond the pale in terms of the funnies is more of a danger with some films than others, and I must say that the potential for sick jokes when discussing Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone (original title De rouille et d'os) is probably greater than most. Restraint is demanded of me anyway, as this is a superior movie in every department.
As the film opens we meet Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a young man making his way to the south of France with his young son – we don't see the situation they have left, but everything suggests it was not a pretty or healthy one. Ali is living on the fringes, and takes refuge with his sister and her partner. Eventually he gets a job as a bouncer at a swish local nightclub, where he is called upon to help a glamorous young woman in distress. She is Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), independent-minded, perhaps with troubles of her own. Ali leaves his number with her, but nothing else comes of it.
And then... Well, here we enter somewhat murky waters, as Stephanie undergoes a Significant Personal Event at her workplace (she trains killer whales). This Significant Personal Event is so fundamental to the course of the story that it hardly qualifies as a plot spoiler, but the makers of the film still clearly want it to come as a surprise to the viewer: the trailer for this movie is carefully assembled (one might say to the point of disingenuity) in order to avoid giving it away. Put it this way, she doesn't just have her annual leave request turned down.
Anyway, following the Significant Personal Event, Stephanie finds herself in need of a friend and for some reason turns to Ali, even though they have only met once. What follows is the slow and awkward coming together of two completely different people, Stephanie vulnerable and struggling to come to terms with the realities of life, Ali outwardly carefree, with all the apparent sensitivity and emotional intelligence of a concrete breeze block. And yet it is completely convincing and very affecting.
On one level Rust and Bone is a slightly unusual film, in that it is as utterly dependent on its special effects as any summer blockbuster, but the intention here is for the audience to leave the film with, ideally, no idea that any cinematic wizardry has occurred. These are what used to be called subtle effects, intended to be invisible rather than eyecatching. Well, the virtuosity on display is incredible, as the work involved permeates most of the movie, and I consistently found myself wondering 'how on Earth did they do that so convincingly?' – an uninformed viewer might be completely taken in by the display. On the other hand, I wonder if this wasn't distracting me just a bit from the story itself – I should have been drawn into the scene more than simply marvelling at the quality of the CGI.
On another level, this film had the potential to be a melodramatic weepy of the first rank – the story is bookended by tragedy and potential tragedy, punctuated by anguish and misery, and the actual through-line of the plot is not tremendously original. In some places it's also a bit implausible – at one point, quite late on, Stephanie becomes Ali's manager in his sideline as a bare-knuckle boxer, and her willingness to do this comes out of the blue somewhat. Also, the climax is set up by a plot development which smacks just a bit too much of coincidence (once again, decency precludes me going into too much detail).
However, the film succeeds, partly because it is resolutely unsentimental about any of the characters or their situations – Ali's poverty is not treated as something picturesque or in some way character-forming, we see him scavenging for food in rubbish to feed his son and committing petty theft. Stephanie's own situation is graphically presented too, and the early stages of the central relationship are not the stuff of chocolate-box romance. This is a film trying hard to ground itself in a recognisable world with characters who seem to be real people.
This is of course due to the quality of the central performances, which is the other main reason for the film being as good as it is. It almost goes without saying that much of mainstream English-speaking cinema is at best undemanding and at worst actively stupid. Marion Cotillard has been lucky enough to make most of her major English appearances in films by significant directors who are intelligent men, but even so, for Michael Mann she wound up playing a gangster's moll, and for Christopher Nolan a fragment of someone's memory and the long-lost daughter of a supervillain: not, perhaps, the most heavyweight of parts. Rust and Bone is a movie which really allows Cotillard the opportunity to let her talent shine and she is remarkable, somehow managing to radiate emotion without any obviously laboured technique or visible 'acting' worth mentioning. Matthias Schoenaerts is just as good – in fact he may possibly be even better, in that he's playing someone who doesn't let his emotions show and most of the time seems to be trying to mask them from himself as much as other people.
Cotillard and Schoenaerts are so good that the story is completely compelling throughout, even though much of the telling of it is rather understated. The trailer for this film is soundtracked by soaring music and is full of remarkably colourful, vibrant images, promising a lush and passionate experience. Well, there's a degree of cherry-picking going on here, I would say: there are remarkably photographed and edited sequences dotted through this film, but most of it is much more restrained and naturalistic (the soundtrack is probably most notable for its eclecticism, featuring contributions from both Katy Perry and John Cooper Clarke, for example).
And while this works to the film's advantage for most of its length, I think the director misses a trick in the closing stages – there isn't the transcendent, overwhelmingly romantic climax that I suspect could quite easily have had more emotionally fragile audience-members sniffling into their snack wrappers. Normally I would have applauded the evasion of such open sentimentality – but the important thing is that this film does not deal in sentimentality, but in genuine sentiment – real emotion – and thus had surely earned the right to its big finish. I would not have begrudged it one.
The conclusion Rust and Bone has instead is satisfying and appropriate, and in keeping with the rest of it, so it by no means damages the film. It's just that this is one of the very few flaws in what is one of the best dramas of the year, with possibly the two best performances I've seen, subtitled or not. Not always the easiest of films to watch, and a serious work throughout, but enormously well-made and rewarding.