Rust and Bone

NANCY NAPPER CANTER finds enough bone fide acting talent here to counterweight the rather rusty plot.

Marion Cotillard Matthias SchoeMarion Cotillardnaerts Read My Lips Rust and Bone Vincent Cassel

All the characters were harmed in the making of this film.

When wannabe boxer and part time bouncer Ali moves to France with his estranged young son, he meets Stéphanie – disenchanted party girl by night, killer whale trainer by day. Ali’s first, opportunistic pursuit of Stéphanie is fruitless. But their relationship blossoms when Stephanie loses her legs in an orca-related disaster.

Sound contrived?  Unlikely? It’s both. That a beautiful underwater shot conveniently obscures the accident itself only adds to this, particularly given the complete acuity with which most of the film’s violence is shot. But, like everyone else, I was too immersed to mind.

Outstanding acting almost completely redeems this film of its flaws. Matthias Schoenaerts is fantastic as Ali. If he doesn’t quite possess the rugged grace of Vincent Cassel in Audiard’s 2001 Read My Lips, Shoenaerts’ is nevertheless the more insidious performance. Petty criminal, appalling father, crazed boxer, sensitive lover, soi-disant “OP” (‘operational’: Ali offers sex as and when he’s available): Schoenaerts is utterly convincing throughout. If Stephanie’s leg-less struggle is difficult viewing, Ali’s inconsistencies are harder still.

And Marion Cotillard is mesmerising. Her Bette-Davis-eque beauty lends every slightest facial movement the power to transfix. Indeed, there’s one lingering shot of her sorrowful profile in the garish hubbub of a nightclub that particularly sticks in my mind. And the scene in which she wakes in a hospital bed to find her legs missing has the visceral punch of a nightmare: a nightmare in which you wake up to a nightmare.

My main complaint is that there are two nightmares at all; the second (though we know it’s coming) even more shocking than the first. Watching it, I was utterly captivated. Frozen, even. But though affecting, it’s gratuitous. Having two such momentous events – no spoilers – sees the film verge on the manipulative.

This second disaster also sees the focus shift decisively onto Ali. In the aftermath of the crisis, Ali becomes capable of being more than just Stéphanie’s sexual and emotional emancipator. He learns to love. And not only that, he learns to express love. Schoenaerts carries this off beautifully. But where in Read My Lips, Audiard puts equal focus on Carla (similarly rescued from depression by a roguish love interest) it was a shame that we slightly lost sight of Stephanie towards the end. Both the leads are equally terrific – they deserve equal parts.

Much of Rust and Bone is harrowing, but at moments it’s also joyously uplifting. Stéphanie’s wheelchair-bound dancing is glorious, as is her first post-accident swim in the sea, her first kiss with Ali, and the first steps on her carbon blades. Speaking of which, the special effects – particularly the close shots of Stéphanie’s amputated legs – are mind-bogglingly convincing.

This is flawed, yes. The plot is over-crowded, the excellently eclectic soundtrack occasionally sentimental, and it is at moments whimsical. But it’s still four star entertainment.