Certain films create a sense of loss and uncertainty in the viewer. The average film puts a bomb under a seat, sets a hero to defuse the bomb and throws obstacles in his way. This ticking clock plot gives us a mooring in the story, helps us know where we are, aids us in understanding the places we still have to go and the objectives which still need to be accomplished. But then there are the films that set us amidst characters who are enigmatic, who we have to work to understand, who create moments and repercussions which have no simple resolution.
Rust and Bone, you are such a film, and as such discussing your successes and virtues is something of a conundrum. As the story of two lost souls drawn into one another’s orbits and brought into a collision course, you’re a gripping and compelling character study. As an arc that an audience can follow and understand, you work to a point, but the bulk of your time is spent in a haze of peaks and valleys of emotional deliverance that ends up creating an almost wearying sense of loss and uncertainty. Is this a credit or a detriment to your artistry? I suppose that depends on what the audience expects from you. You are not a romantic comedy, nor a romantic drama. You are a human drama, charting the exact nadir of experience at which an otherwise damaged and irreclaimable person may find reconciliation with their own soul.
Ali is a strongman who journeys with his young son to a coast of France in order to begin a new life. A former kickboxer, Ali takes jobs that capitalize on his physicality. While working as a bouncer, Ali comes to the aid of Stephanie, a woman whose love of flirtation lands her on the wrong end of a vicious altercation. Ali takes her home, leaves and impression, but then moves on with his life, rising from bouncer to security guard. Stephanie, meanwhile, goes to her job as a whale trainer at Marineworld, where she is involved in a freak accident that leads to the loss of her legs.
The emotional and existential torpor that Stephanie goes through is enough to film an entire lesser film, yet in Marion Cotillard’s performance we are given none of the histrionics that would otherwise result. Hers is a quiet, all-consuming grief and confusion which slowly erodes the flirtatious and energetic woman that she was before. Yet, for no reason either of them could pinpoint, she reaches out to Ali. They spend a day together, and unlike almost anyone else in her life, Ali doesn’t defer to her condition, but rather expects of her the same things he would expect from anyone else. They go out to the beach, swim and sunbathe, and all the while Ali treats her as though she were any other person, something which helps her to begin to feel whole again.
Your story takes place over the course of untold numbers of months, as the waltz of Ali and Stephanie’s friendship changes both of them for the better, though never toward the wholly good. Ali retains his fierce physical presence, allowing his frustrations and anger to express themselves in massive displays of violence. Even his good moods are punctuated by an unrelenting force of physical expression. This leads to a number of harsh and terrifying moments which serve to underline the flimsiness of his progression towards being a good father, a thoughtful friend, and possibly something more.
There are moments of sublime beauty in your tale, both in the world of nature and in the world of our characters. Your direction, by Jacques Audiard, is beyond reproach, and the script by him and Thomas Bidegain leaves plenty of room for character grace notes and expressions that relate whole worlds of feeling. Time and action become chords in a rich harmony of life viewed through an unedited gaze. There is no sign post pointing us toward the moment we will find completion or at least contentedness in our lives. Neither should there be such a sign post in a movie that hews so closely to reality and the way in which obstinant people are forced to either rise or fall.
So what does all this mean? I’ve praised your emotional complexity and richness. I’ve spoken about your visual splendor. I’ve also said that your meandering and repetitive narrative is both true to life and could yet lead to anxiousness in an unprepared audience. How to wrap up my feelings on a film which gets such heartfelt recommendations and yet still requires a disclaimer of such magnitude?
I can say this: you feature, at a centerpiece moment, a pop song which could no doubt have been employed using solely its literal meaning, though in the most crass and base way possible. This song extols individuality and the need to express oneself, and in a far lesser and more blunt film would have found saccharine earnestness in its use. You, meanwhile, give the music a surprisingly resonance for the character, creating a moment of strangely ecstatic, personal joy. The moment begins strangely comic – merely from the presence of the song – then escalates into ethereal purity. A character moment that defines what you do best.
For anyone who has the patience and the curiosity to examine the complexities of what humanity is able to overcome and endure, you are a treat of stellar proportions. A film not to be missed, and to be eagerly revisited.
With unwavering respect,
Brian J. Roan