‘Rust and Bone’ shows Marion Cotillard is made of tough stuff

Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard star in 'Rust and Bone'
Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard star in ‘Rust and Bone’

One of the more common images used in marketing Jacques Audiard’s intense new drama, Rust and Bone, is that of a killer whale, a gorgeous and not irrelevant sight given that Stephanie, the role essayed by Marion Cotillard, is a whale trainer. Having such a creature represent the film is a wise choice given that Bone itself is a crude look at animal instinct and magnetism – especially in human form.

Bone, which Audiard and Thomas Bidegain loosely adapted from Craig Davidson’s short story collection, is a corporeal film, equally interested in the beatings the body takes and the ways in which it learns to recover. It follows the wavy but intersecting lines of both Stephanie and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), concentrating on Ali’s bumbling attempts to bear responsibility for himself and his young son, Sam (Armand Cerdue). Taking up residence with his sister, Louise (Céline Sallette), Ali works in earnest as a nightclub bouncer but also illegally as a street prizefighter and surveillance criminal. Ali is a character in almost constant motion, which director of photography Stéphane Fontaine chronicles incessantly in close-up, whether Ali is out for a run, getting his face pummeled by an opponent or engaging in the casual sex that Bone ultimately comes to hypothesize serves as both communication and therapy.

Marion Cotillard is hauntingly good in 'Rust and Bone'
Marion Cotillard is hauntingly good in ‘Rust and Bone’

Ali meets Stephanie early on in Bone, rescuing her after a bar fight in his current place of employ. Their paths do not cross again until after a major catastrophe at Marineland, essentially a Sea World of the Côte d’Azur, has forced Stephanie’s legs to be amputated below the knee. Rendered alone and lonely by a combination of both choice and circumstance, Stephanie gets a random phone call from Ali to meet up. There’s neither pity nor a hidden agenda to their socializing, which acts as a refreshing salve to the quiet depression Cotillard so subtly communicates her character nursing. Of course, their undefined relationship escalates, and as French filmmakers so often do, Audiard requires that his actors bare all, both outside – unflinchingly captured by Fontaine – and within.

With its very European (that is to say, honest) depiction of sex and violence, Bone is a film of visceral impact. But is also one of limited effect, as well. Like Stephanie herself, Audiard at times appears frustrated by the boundaries offered by celluloid. For instance, he films the actual incident that injures Stephanie rather obliquely; I’m still not sure exactly what happened, what caused it, or how it could have possibly been prevented. Additionally, his reliance on visual symbolism feels redundant rather early into the film, and his characters’ suffering gradually grows less palpable. (Convincing CGI effects are used to erase Stephanie’s limbs, however.) And while his last film, A Prophet, managed to circumvent storytelling tropes with a tale of similar brutishness, Bone does fall victim to foreordained plot developments.

It’s Audiard’s cast that provides sufficient weight. Cotillard navigates Stephanie’s adjustment, which eventually includes prosthesis, with great delicacy, but also unleashes a temper when her inner tiger is threatened or as she grows closer to Ali. And Schoenaerts, who similarly toed the line between man and animal in last’s year’s Oscar-nominated Bullhead, channels early Marlon Brando here. He reminds us that no matter how rough and raging man may be on the outside, on the inside he’s still always looking to be tamed.

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