Smile Politely

This is gonna hurt

Writer/director Jacques Audiard begins his spare, mesmerizing new film Rust and Bone with the sound of a sleeping child. This gentle rhythm, instantly recognizable to any parent and certainly countless other viewers, is soothing, like the distant sound of waves. It lulls the audience, like a smart fighter might, leaving us open for the blows that are to come.

Fighting is an important element of Rust and Bone. Whether it is the struggle of a man and his five-year-old son to outdistance poverty and hunger, or the difficult road to recovery of a woman who has suffered a terrible, life-altering accident, or the literal bone-crunching brutality of underground kickboxing matches, all of these characters live hard and suffer. They win occasionally, they lose often, but they constantly fight. 

We first meet Ali, a knockaround guy played by Matthias Schoenaerts, as he hustles from place to place, dragging his little boy Sam (Armand Verdure) on a journey to find work. We see them eat the garbage others have left behind. We see them steal when they must. We follow them to a new town and the home of Ali’s sister, who has a line on a job for him. He’ll work security, and it seems a good fit: he’s a bruiser, after all, and a job’s a job.

The beauty of the script, frankly, is that it gives only enough information to keep us interested. Questions are left unanswered. We never know if Ali is on the level. When he interviews for a security position, are his job references legit? Does he really have titles and belts back home as a professional fighter, or is he just a formidable brawler who is looking for a break? Is he scavenging for food for Sam because he feels a paternal duty, or is he just trying to shut the hungry kid up? 

Ali is a creature of simplicity and reaction. He can be kind, but when he is, it is because that is the simplest response. This is the case, more often than not, with Sam, but also with Stephanie, a woman he meets through her involvment in a fight outside the club where Ali works. After breaking up the fight, he drives the bloodied Stephanie home in her car. When they arrive and she asks how he’ll get back, he says, matter-of-factly, “I have no idea.” 

This is how Ali approaches life. When the attractive woman needs a ride home, he drives. When he has the opportunity for fast, emotionless sex with random women, he does what feels good in the moment, whether or not his son is waiting. When he is offered a chance to beat other men bloody for cash, he takes it. And when the attractive woman who needed a ride calls him out of the blue, he goes to her.

This woman, Stephanie, played by Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard, is an Orca trainer at a Sea World-type aquatic center. It should give nothing away to state that, early in the film, an accident causes her to lose both of her legs at the knee. This dramatic and horrifying experience is the impetus for her reconnection with Ali, and they begin a casual, straight-talking friendship that eventually becomes vital to both of them, in terms of both their emotional lives and their personal development. 

This is not exactly a love story, and yet it is. Nor is it a straightforward underdog story in which characters face their challenges and push themselves to overcome the odds. The script allows us to see the flawed human beings that Ali and Stephanie are, but it also displays with an impressive casualness their capacity for goodness and simple kindness. In a lesser (read: American) film, Stephanie’s struggle with and acceptance of her situation would be an inspirational montage of cliché recovery scenes set to an orchestral swell. In Rust and Bone, she goes for a swim and it feels good. She isn’t cured by this moment; it merely makes her happy. Ali visits her and shows no pity. Next we see her dancing in her wheelchair as “Love Shack” plays. Life in Rust and Bone is not meant to resemble the plot of a movie; it is meant to resemble life. 

Both Schoenaerts and Cotillard are truly impressive playing people who have been broken by circumstance and who survive by experiencing life from moment to moment. Schoenaerts, all beefy muscle and impassive glower as Ali, is a perfect counterpoint to Cotillard’s Stephanie, whose brittle beauty belies a flinty core.

I was shocked to discover, upon returning home from seeing this film, that it received not one nomination for this year’s Academy Awards. No acting accolades, no love for the director (who also crafted the acclaimed films A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped), and no nod for Best Foreign Film. I will be anxious to see just how wonderful the nominated films surely must be, for I cannot believe any of them are more deserving than the lean, tightly-scripted, superbly-acted Rust and Bone. 

Rust and Bone film is still showing at The Art in downtown Champaign. Go see it.


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