Having risen to the front line of contemporary European auteurs with his previous, widely-acclaimed De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (The Beat that My Heart Skipped) and Un Prophète (A Prophet), French writer-director Jacques Audiard was due for a backlash. And it duly arrived with Rust and Bone, fashioned from a book of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson and toplined by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. While it is in fact a lesser film than the two previous titles, it stands up quite well on its own as a solid, slightly left-of-field tale with a slightly American feel. It is, after all, the story of two people struggling to rebuild their lives from scratch, two losers finding each other at the darkest point of their lives and wondering whether they're the answers to each other's prayers. And what is genuinely interesting in it is the consistent intertwining of body and soul throughout, since both characters, Ms. Cotillard's Stéphanie and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts' Ali, are learning to live in their broken bodies while nursing broken souls and not quite sure how to deal with the blows that life sends their way.

     Meeting in Antibes, where former boxer Ali is working as a bouncer and living hand-to-mouth with his young son at his sister's and Stéphanie is an orca trainer at the local marine park, the tale gets going when she loses her legs in an accident and he starts bare-knuckle-boxing to make money on the side. Mr. Audiard doesn't quite know where he wants to go: in many ways, his cinema remains too "thoughtful" and literate to actually achieve the total physicality he is looking for, while the social background of working-class people whose lives are struggles in themselves adds a somewhat hefty layer of metaphor. Yet the physical moments are the high points of his film, the way Stéphane Fontaine's widescreen cinematography captures both the bright beachfront light and the nocturnal darkness surrounding the characters.

     In that respect, the key to Rust and Bone, much more than a typically restrained Ms. Cotillard, is Mr. Schoenaerts' affecting presence, an expertly nuanced performance halfway between sweetness and brute strength that is the perfect metaphor of what the director was looking far without quite getting there. Whenever the actor is on the screen, the film approaches what Mr. Audiard must have had in mind - but despite the shortcomings, this is an often beautiful to look at, always interesting piece of work by a director still head and shoulders ahead of its competitors.

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners, Jean-Michel Correia
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenplay: Mr. Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, from the book of short stories by Craig Davidson, Rust and Bone
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Michel Barthélémy
Costumes: Virginie Montel
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Production: Why Not Productions, Page 114 and France 2 Cinéma in co-production with Les Films du Fleuve, Lumière et Lunanime, RTBF, BIM Distribuzione and Optimum Releasing
France/Belgium/Italy/United Kingdom, 2012, 122 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, March 8th 2013


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