“Rust and Bone” adds to the list of award-season films centered on people with disabilities and the people who love or help them. The list includes “The Sessions,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Amour.”
Three things make “Rust and Bone” work: the powerhouse acting abilities of Matthias Schoenaerts, star of last year's Oscar-nominated “Bullhead,” and Marion Cotillard, an Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose”; and French director Jacques Audiard (“Un Prophete,” a 2009 foreign-language Oscar nominee), who also co-wrote the script.
Schoenaerts is Ali, a burly Belgian brute from the school of hard knocks. Suddenly given custody of his 5-year-old son, he moves to Antibes in the south of France where he lives with his sister, a supermarket cashier scraping by.
He cobbles together a life as a bar bouncer, an illegal surveillance-system installer and a street fighter working for a bookie. He dreams of becoming a mixed martial arts star. He irresponsibly blows off picking his kid up at school and dumps him on his sister a lot. His selfishness comes to hurt everyone around him.
At the bar he attempts a casual hookup with Stéphanie (Cotillard), a trainer of killer whales at a Sea World-type show. Stéphanie has veiled problems in her domestic life, and Ali barely keeps his testosterone in check when he sees this.
The opening focuses on Ali's messy life. Then Stéphanie is the victim of an accident at work that causes both her legs to be amputated at the knee, and the focus shifts.
She slips into severe depression, her sense of self shattered. She barely has the will to live, let alone work on rehabilitation. She refuses to leave her new apartment, which is outfitted for a person in a wheelchair.
Unpredictably, she calls Ali. They begin seeing each other. He coaxes her out of the darkness of her apartment and into the light of a nearby beach. He uses her for sex when it suits him.
If you're like me, the movie will feel like a downer at this point. You won't like Ali for being such a selfish, heartless brute. And you won't like Stéphanie for allowing herself to be used by him when she clearly cares.
She lacks legs and self-esteem. He's an animal with no heart.
But stick around. Director Audiard might sometimes telegraph what's coming next with his use of the camera, but these characters are not as one-dimensional and predictable as they sound.
And the actors playing them are more than capable of layered performances that surprise. The very brokenness of these characters is what makes them relatable. A scene of Stéphanie at the bar watching Ali, and a scene of Ali on a frozen lake (you'll know these moments when they arrive) are unforgettable. So is a scene when Stéphanie returns to the aquarium and her whales.
“Rust and Bone” presents two contrasting characters at war with themselves, then has us watch as their differences spark and rub off on each other. It's sexually raw, at times brutal and animalistic, and at other times almost unbearably tender. It could be overly maudlin or overly sentimental. It's not.
It feels real. It gets under your skin and rattles your cage a bit. It sticks with you afterward. In my mind, that means a movie has done something very right.
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