Film Review: Tough, Tender Love in 'Rust and Bone'

Sony Pictures Classics
Brutish Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) strikes up a friendship and more with legless Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) in "Rust and Bones." 
 Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in 'Rust and Bone.' 
 Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Sony Pictures Classics Brutish Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) strikes up a friendship and more with legless Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) in "Rust and Bones." Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in 'Rust and Bone.' Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Cotillard's missing legs prove almost irrevelant

In "Rust and Bone," Marion Cotillard loses both legs but retains her hotness. This might seem like an inappropriate observation, but it's very much to the point of this very physical, very French romance of redemptive suffering from director Jacques Audiard, a specialist in tough and tender tales of bruising situations and punishing emotions.

Audiard's combination of extremist drama and realist presentation previously found rugged/poetic expression in 2000's "Read My Lips" (ex-con falls for deaf secretary), 2005's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" (thug can't decide whether to be mob enforcer or concert pianist) and 2009's "A Prophet" (Algerian petty criminal becomes influential gangster).

Ali finds himself with a five year-old child on his hands. Sam is his son, but he hardly knows him. Homeless, penniless and friendless, Ali ...

Rating: R for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language

Length: 115 minutes

Released: November 23, 2012 NY/LA

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette, Corinne Masiero

Director: Jacques Audiard

Writer: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain

More info and showtimes »

Rust and Bone

Rated R for sexual content, nudity, profanity and some violence.

Memphis is hardly a clearinghouse for foreign-language films, but all three of those movies played here, making Audiard — entirely by accident — one of the Bluff City's few repeat-visitor international auteurs of the past decade. Even without this track record, the arrival of "Rust and Bone" was to be expected. Cotillard — winner of the Best Actress Academy Award for 2007's "La Vie en Rose," which led to her Hollywood stardom in such films as "The Dark Knight Rises" — had been touted as a possible Oscar nominee for her performance here, and the movie has received fairly wide distribution.

Although most of the publicity about "Rust and Bone" has focused on the top-billed Cotillard and her digitally erased legs, the lead performer actually is Belgium's Matthias Schoenaerts ("Bullhead") as Ali, a jobless former kickboxer who relocates with his 5-year-old son (Armand Verdure) to a resort town on the French Riviera, moving into an apartment in a working-class neighborhood with his cashier sister and her truck-driver husband. (The movie all but ignores the glitz and glamour that are the raison d'être of most Côte d'Azur movies.)

Working as a bouncer at a dance club, Ali meets Stéphanie (Cotillard), significantly introduced by Audiard via a shot of her legs, protruding from a short party dress. Her nose bloodied after some sort of dust-up, Stéphanie accepts a ride home from the less-than-suave Ali, who comments that the woman's outfit makes her look like a "whore."

Inside Stéphanie's apartment, Ali sees photographs of his new acquaintance in scuba gear at some sort of marine park, performing alongside killer whales. "Surprised a whore can train orcas?" Stéphanie asks, in what may be the year's most unexpected movie question.

After Stéphanie loses both legs in an on-the-job accident, she initiates a friendship and then some with Ali, who soon is beaten and bloody himself, as a participant in illegal but profitable bare-knuckle brawls. Maybe the presence of Ali, whose nonjudgmental bluntness is a kind of balm, explains why Stéphanie doesn't seem to miss her whales.

Albeit no carnivorous cetacean, Ali seems essentially animal himself: an inarticulate creature of instinct and appetite whose main interests are fornicating and fighting. In any case, Stéphanie's orca background and in fact her leglessness prove almost irrelevant in terms of plot. The function of these extreme as well as risky story elements is to lift the narrative into melodrama, to provide a sort of contrapuntal contour to the authenticity of the locations and the naturalism of the (wonderful) performances.

At times, the film — adapted from a short story by Craig Davidson — feels contrived; when an accident on the ice occurs late in the story, you're not sure whether to blame the irresponsible Ali or the sadistic filmmaker, who makes his characters work hard indeed to achieve at least the possibility of wisdom and peace.

When Lon Chaney starred in "The Penalty" (1920), he contrived a special harness so he could portray a legless gangster; the rig was painful, and the illusion and the performance remain mesmerizing. Such labor, of course, is no longer necessary. Digital technology allows us to view Cotillard's full body with its bare stumps, but the effect is not as impressive as in "The Penalty" because there's no mystery to it. Even so, the movie's most memorable moments remind us of Stéphanie's unusual circumstances. When Ali carries Stéphanie on the beach, piggyback-style, her abbreviated limbs hugging his torso, the image is simple and beautiful: a symbol of a togetherness that doesn't need words to be eloquent.

"Rust and Bone" is exclusively at the Malco Studio on the Square.

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