Marion Cotillard might seem the one to watch in Jacques Audiard’s melodrama, Rust and Bone. She is the movie star, after all, playing a character who suffers a shocking injury and an emotionally convoluted road to recovery. But as her cohort in pain, Matthias Schoenaerts makes the deeper impression. Together, they create a deeply etched study in punishments and limits, in what the body and the soul can endure.
When we first spot him, Ali (Schoenaerts) is traveling with his towheaded and vaguely angelic young son Sam (Armand Verdure) to stay with his sister. It’s a wordless journey to the south of France, but Audiard makes clear with a few simple shots of Ali scrabbling through the garbage and putting together a meal for the two of them, that they are living on the edge. The sister, Louise (Celine Sallette), is a cashier and her husband a truck driver; still, when Ali and Sam arrive at their simple apartment, it looks like an island of luxury. Of vague background and experience, except for some time spent as a professional kickboxer, Ali doesn’t seem particularly eager to get on a path leading to stability or maturity. He looks happy just to be rid of Sam’s drug-dealing mother, and to have somebody to look after the child when he doesn’t feel like doing so.
Stephanie (Cotillard) is hardly more mature than Ali. She’s something of a drifter, going out to clubs to annoy her boyfriend. One night at a club where Ali is working as a bouncer, he offers to drive her home and then comes close to picking a fight with the boyfriend once there. Stephanie and Ali seem a heartbeat away from starting one of the world’s least rewarding relationships. Though her job sounds more exciting than his—she works as a killer-whale trainer at a water park—they share what seems a fundamental dissatisfaction.
One day at work, she suffers an accident. During a series of acrobatic whale maneuvers (scored to generically uplifting pop songs), the film cuts to a shot of blood in the water. When Stephanie comes to, both her legs are missing from just above the knee.
Both these damaged spirits spend the rest of the film trying and failing to latch onto some kind of forward momentum. Their pairing seems less an occasion for healing than masking pain. Stephanie, her eyes hollowed from lack of sleep and too much medication, looks dead to the world, while Ali is so mired in his roundelay of dead-end jobs, violently carnal one-night stands, and an ill-advised stint as bare-knuckle fighter that he’s barely aware of how fast he’s also spiraling toward oblivion.
And yet these two are engaging together. Stephanie regains some sense of ownership over her body from Ali’s no-nonsense lovemaking, while Ali begins to show the first glimmers of compassionate care toward another person. The scenes where Ali carries Stephanie on his back into the glimmering waters of their oceanside town are quietly and warmly redemptive. Although Ali treats Stephanie like a buddy with whom he happens to have sex, that casual attitude toward her wounded body bonds her more tightly to him, it seems, than any number of overtly romantic gestures would.
Such complexity recalls Audiard’s previous film, A Prophet, in which characters faced similarly irresolvable dilemmas. Here Ali and Stephanie confront a series of obstacles, including his increasingly dangerous fights and explosions of anger. In the latter sections of the film, as Cotillard conveys Stephanie’s growing frustrations with a slow burn, Schoenaerts takes command of the screen, conveying again the sort of naked rage that made his performance in the otherwise negligible Bullhead so eye-catching. He’s nothing less than astonishing here, and keeps the film cringingly engaging, even with a last-minute manipulative tearjerker of a scene. Schoenaerts’ wide-open performance and Cotillard’s vulnerability carry Rust and Bone through its several rough patches, turning it into a muscular romance that leaves its mark like a bruise.