Rust and Bone one of the best films of 2012

Before 2009’s A Prophet, I hadn’t seen a film by Jacques Audiard. After seeing his Palme D’Or competitor Rust and Bone at the Hyland Cinema, I will be sure to look back at his body of work. Both of these pictures are absolutely terrific and Audiard has a gloriously stylized pulpy noir grit to his filmmaking sense. Here he has Marion Cotillard as Stephanie, going all out in a bravura performance as a young woman who has to have her legs amputated as a result of an accident at her job as a whale trainer at Marineland. Apparently, they have those in France as well.

Her story is paired with the arrival of Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) in Antibes, a big hulking man-brute, who shows up broke and carrying along his young son (Armand Verdure). He crashes with his sister and uses his background as a kickboxer to get work as a bouncer. Later he works his way into the local street-fighting ring to feed his need to get out his aggression, break the monotony of life, and make a little coin.

Along the way as a bouncer he meets Stephanie. They strike up a relationship and he sort of just falls into the role of her unofficial rehab coach and then lover. There’s no real explanation as to why these people are drawn together, but director Audiard does a great job of establishing a sort of malaise in their lives, the kind that needs any kind of spark to get moving again, and the kind of scenario that has kicked off some of the great film noirs.

By taking us into Ali’s world of male aggression and moral compromise, the film becomes a great contemporary noir instead of the inspirational story of ‘overcoming the odds’ that Cotillard’s recovery from losing her legs could have been. It should be said that the CGI that removes her limbs is convincing, but, spatially, and when in motion, the effect was never wholly believable to me. Perhaps that would be impossible to achieve.

The film and Cotillard’s take on her disability make for an unflinching experience that humanizes a condition on screen. It doesn’t rely on the kind of rank sentimentality of a film like The Sessions, instead it makes Cotillard’s condition part of a larger course of events and galvanizes her character back into action. Wisely, Audiard chooses to incorporate Stephanie into the fighter story arch and achieves a layered story. This is the kind of movie that is harrowing but also compelling. The film develops its characters so well that Stephanie can actually take a backseat to Ali’s story as the narrative hones in on its climax without losing any momentum.

Ultimately, it is the moral crisis of Ali and the relationship with his son that carries the film in its third act. If Rust and Bone does eventually take a melodramatic tact, it has earned it because it took the bulk of its running time to thoroughly and realistically involve us in the dimensions of these characters. Thus, we’re in the mood to follow them through the ringer of a plot contrivance or two.

This is great narrative filmmaking. Audiard uses a lot of high style here: there are montages set to music (a dance remix of Bruce Springsteen’s State Trooper if you can believe it) and slow motion scenes of brutal violence. The French Riviera is shown unglamorously, almost slum like, but hints of the ultra-rich tease at the predominantly working-class settings of the film. Occasionally a yacht will be seen in the distance as Ali rides by on his beat-up scooter, or when Audiard pans through an over-lit shopping plaza.

He knows very well how to go in close on violence to make us feel the impact of it and revile from the brutality and cruelty of it. This is the kind of thing Quentin Tarantino could be doing if he ever wants to grow up. In my humble opinion, this is one of the best films of 2012, so rush out and see it at the Hyland as it will be the only place screening it locally. Sure there is always DVD and streaming, but this is a masterfully cinematic experience.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Paul Hantiuk is a local film enthusiast and occasional freelance writer

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