After beautiful orca trainer Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), loses her legs in a tragic accident, she finds comfort in a relationship with a troubled stranger named Alain “Ali” (Matthias Schoenaerts). What could have been an unconventional love story is instead a string of melodramatic moments strung together that fail to illustrate how two people can develop a deep connection through shared pain.
As the film opens, Ali and his son Sam (Armand Verdure) have come to live with Ali’s sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) and her husband. It isn’t a joyful reunion between the siblings. His sister appears to have opened her home out of familial obligation more than affection.
Although Ali strives to become a professional kickboxer, he’s forced to work a series of odd security jobs that barely support himself and his son. While working as a bouncer at a nightclub he comes to the aid of Stéphanie, who is physically assaulted by a male patron. Ali offers her a ride home, but his chivalry is short-lived when he informs her that she was asking for trouble because of the way she was dressed. There’s definitely a misogynistic component to Ali’s personality. He’s barely able to show affection to his sister, whom he hasn’t seen in five years. His frenzied, almost violent, sexual encounters with strangers hint at his attitude that women are merely objects that serve a carnal purpose. That is until he meets Stéphanie.
After talking his way into her apartment, Ali learns that she is living with a man. It’s obvious their union is not a happy one. Stéphanie treats him with indifference, and they have a brief but heated argument while Ali is present. This boyfriend or lover tries to exert some dominance by asking Ali to leave. His meekness is exemplified when Ali, on his way out the door, informs Stéphanie that he has left her his phone number in case she needs him for anything. Whether he is simply concerned for her safety given the night’s events, or he is interested in her sexually is unclear. What is important is that this random encounter inexplicably becomes something more.
Since the relationship between Ali and Stéphanie never evolves into a love story, the real heart and soul of Rust and Bone is Stéphanie’s agonizing emotional recovery from her accident. She evolves from being cradled and comforted like an infant on her hospital room floor to learning to find the inner strength to stand, walk, and build a new life.
After turning her back on the majority of her old friends, she reaches out to Ali. It’s a hard decision to understand. Ali is simply not likeable as a character. He spends no time with his young son, opting to leave Sam in the care of his relatives. He lacks patience and is quick to become violent in frustrating situations. Still weeks, maybe months, after she is released from the hospital, Stéphanie calls Ali. The man, the apartment and the job she had when she first met him are all gone.
Ali’s overall ambivalence works in Stéphanie’s favor. He doesn’t pity her primarily because he doesn’t have the capacity to do so. Stéphanie’s battle to find her new normal takes fortitude. As a testosterone-fueled Alpha male with a fighter’s mentality, Ali can understand and respect this type of strength. Perhaps, this explains why Ali treats her with more tenderness and kindness than not only other women, but other people in general.
Stéphanie takes charge of her recovery after Ali takes her on a trip to the beach. Ali does inadvertently motivate Stephanie, but he plays no direct role in her burgeoning independence. When she suddenly unveils her ability to walk with the aid of prosthetic limbs he is surprised. It’s obvious that she doesn’t discuss events that take place in her life when she isn’t with him.
The two are emotionally impenetrable until one day Stéphanie confesses to Ali that she doesn’t even know if she’s physically capable of having a fulfilling sex life. He offers to f**k her, assuring her that there is no other way for her to find out. Viewers already know there is no intimacy in the act of intercourse for Ali. Stéphanie initially shares this same character trait when she reluctantly agrees but asks him not to kiss her. Ali agrees, neither hurt nor offended by her request.
As quickly as their relationship began, it ends. Ali runs into some trouble and decides to leave town. He doesn’t take his son and fails to notify Stéphanie. The next time we see him, Ali appears to be at some type of athletic training facility. His brother-in-law drops Sam off for a brief visit. In the short time that Sam is under Ali’s care, there is an accident. It’s only after this incident, when Ali is at risk of losing his son, that he shows any vulnerability, remorse or even love. His epiphany feels false since he has shirked the responsibility of really caring for Sam from the beginning. The accident also reunites him with Stéphanie. Their relationship at the end of the film is as impenetrable as it was throughout.
The special features include: film commentary from director Jacques Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain, deleted scenes, a featurette “Making Rust and Bone: A Film by Antonin Peretkatko and an in-depth look at the special effects used in the film. All are in French but the option of having English subtitles is offered. There are also sound bites from the director and cast as they walk the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival.