I’m quite partial to an antihero. Usually the murkier a film, book or play’s protagonist the better. I love those grey areas that place a lead player’s fortune in the balance. It’s one of the great staples of drama, inexhaustibly captivating over the years. But it’s also, as director Jacques Audiard has now quite clearly proved to me, something of a balancing act. Push it too far and your audience can ultimately find a character contemptible or completely unsympathetic. This, unfortunately, is one of the things which mired Rust And Bone for me.
So what’s the film about? Well, if you’ve caught the trailer – perfectly edited to M83’s “My Tears Are Becoming A Sea” – you’ll have gotten a good flavour of it. Marion Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a whale trainer at Marineland in Southern France. She suffers an accident which changes her life very suddenly. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali, a drifter and disinterested father who takes odd jobs as a bouncer or security guard, and is quite partial to an illegal street fight. Their lives are destined to intersect, their troubles co-mingle in a melodrama with its satnav firmly set to tragedy and/or redemption.
And whilst seeing the trailer for Rust And Bone does not give away all of the film’s secrets, you can see every single one of them coming from a mile off. This is one problem. There are simply too many uninspired tales like this already. The road’s been travelled. Audiard might make the journey beautiful – he manages this frequently – but it’s hard not to grow weary along the way. If you can’t comfortably predict 90% of the second hour’s plot turns after the first 30 minutes then where have you been this whole time?
A surprising storyline isn’t everything of course. But that brings us back to what I was talking about in paragraph one. Schoenaerts’ work as Ali is whole-heartedly convincing. It’s a smart, unfussy piece of naturalistic acting. As well controlled as anything you’ll see this year. Trouble is the character is so without redeeming qualities that it becomes incredibly difficult to feel anything better than indifference toward him. Ali is self-centred, inconsiderate and brutish. He shows little remorse for his terrible parenting, and spares no thought for how his actions may negatively impact those around him. Whilst never actively malicious, he is such an oaf that it becomes hard to decide whether you’re waiting for something bad to happen to him, or hoping for it.
This makes half of Rust And Bone an incredibly hard sell.
Fortunately, we have Marion Cotillard. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of hers, yet here she is absolutely remarkable. It’s become trite to praise an actor for their ability to portray a person with a disability, but Cotillard’s Stéphanie is pretty much faultless. Grounded in muted realism, but backed with emotional heft, she deserves every platitude already levelled at her for this. She lifts the film up so much so that when she moves into the background – a necessary evil of the film’s third act – her absence is conspicuous.
To call Rust And Bone a romantic drama is to rather mislead. There is precious little romance to speak of, though the audience is pre-programmed to follow this pairing through the usual course. But with the balance between the characters so off, it’s not easy to cheer for them as a couple. The overriding impression is that, well, she could be doing a whole lot better.
Why Ali? I’m still not sure. Clearly Stéphanie is drawn to him, and whilst he may be deplorable in all other regards, he is generally a better person in her presence. Some of the time. Well, a bit.
I appreciate and respect the honesty of it. Audiard rejects the notion of Hollywood romance, instead giving us something painted with less broad strokes, yet at the same time has he pushed too hard against it?
Rust And Bone is no disaster, though. From a technical perspective there is really little to fault. Alexandre Desplat provides an unobtrusive score to Stéphane Fontaine’s generally pleasing photography, and the sound design is pretty much spot on. And whilst two hours in this instance feels like a long time, there are no particular sequences that would’ve served the picture better on the cutting room floor.
In fact, a few moments here are quite transcendent. A long take in which Stéphanie communicates with one of her former whales through glass can’t help but move the viewer, whilst Audiard’s liberal use of Katy Perry songs sounds on paper like a truly awful idea… in practice it provides arguably the film’s standout moment in the middle of the picture. Again, with Cotillard’s Stéphanie fleetingly revisiting a life lost to her.
These moments of grace are all the more frustrating because of the lacklustre elements at work here. Something in the story just doesn’t connect, and a big part of this for me remains the loathsome Ali. For such a key link to be so weak makes the whole thing a rather tiresome exercise peppered with gems. Whether these diamonds are worth searching for in the rough is up to you.
Maybe it’s just me. If you’re undecided I would say give it a go. I’ve not seen Audiard’s other films yet, and nothing here has dissuaded me from wanting to. But I can’t give the film a more glowing score than the one below. For this viewer Rust And Bone proved an unfortunately unsatisfying experience.