By Glenn Heath Jr. | Press Play May 17, 2012 at 9:37AM
Jacques Audiard only knows how to pummel us. The French director of The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet wouldn’t know a subtle musical cue or composition if it were staring him in the face. Though such rigorous formalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Audiard’s overtly heightened style is problematic because it reflects a lack of interest in mining deeper territory and a thoughtless flair for obvious symbolism. This is a cinema of blunt force trauma, of momentary awe, and all the stylized violence and lens flares merely reinforce a lack of heft in the gracefully repulsive scenarios Audiard creates.
Rust and Bone, Audiard’s latest study in physical weathering and emotional repression, only further confirms his ongoing obsession with surfaces: skin, sunlight, ice, blood, and cement are all key motifs in the story of a perpetually violent ex-fighter who develops an unexpected relationship with a former Orca trainer recently crippled by a devastating accident. Both characters are deformed, one externally and the other internally, but they share an unspoken bond created by mutual rage and momentary quiet. In many instances their two experiences overlap, most strangely when the brutish Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is resurrected during a brutal street brawl after watching the legless Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) use her newly acquired prosthetic limbs to walk toward him. In typical Audiard fashion, the inane reversal of fortune is heightened to the point of melodrama in super slow motion.
Strangely, the central relationship between Ali and Stéphanie, often the most interesting thing about Rust and Bone, is often left in limbo as Audiard cuts away to a number of convoluted subplots involving minor fringe characters. Lingering behind are many fascinating moments, as these two tortured characters attempt to communicate through instinct despite a lot of emotional static. There’s a stunning sun-drenched sequence where Ali carries the legless Stéphanie into the ocean, letting her swim freely as he watches from the beach. Wading in the shallow waters, Stéphanie takes off her shirt and swims into the current, regaining a sense of empowerment. Her transition in this scene feels organic, as opposed to being a product of jarring aesthetics.
For both characters, freedom is often found when engaging with nature. Rust and Bone’s defining image is of Stéphanie standing in front of a giant glass tank, her small body nearly overwhelmed by the giant Orca engulfing the frame. Her tender interactions with the whale hint at the character study Rust and Bone could have been. If sunlight and water allows Stéphanie the opportunity to realize her own self-worth, piercing ice enacts a similar wake-up call for Ali. But the film’s shameless denouement, a snowy set-piece far from the film’s primary setting in the south of France, bungles the chance for his character to attain the same level of resonance. Unlike Stéphanie, Ali’s coming-of-age moment is screenwriting 101, and steeped in sentimentality.
“We continue but not like animals.” There’s admirable resolve in Stéphanie’s telling words to Ali after their first sexual dalliance, but whether or not he understands (or cares) is ultimately a moot point. Throughout Rust and Bone, there’s never any doubt that Audiard will propel his protagonist to the finish line, a little more broken and but all the wiser, cliché be damned.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.