This enthralling Franco-Belgian film is directed by Jacques Audiard and is based on two short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson. Rust and Bone is one of these films that it is easier to appreciate than to like. Though it is at heart a kind of love story, there are some pretty brutal and ugly scenes in the film. For me the film is more than anything a study of alienation. Both of the main protagonists are to a greater or lesser extent at odds with the world. This is most clearly the case with Alain, the young Belgian who at the start of the films makes his way with his son from Belgium to Antibes on the Riviera. We are never told why he leaves Belgium or what has happened to the mother of his son. He goes to Antibes because he has a married sister who can put him and his son up. Alain clearly doesn’t care much for his son and shows him little in the way of affection. But he doesn’t seem to show anyone any affection and seems pretty much incapable or at least uninterested in affection. Emotionally damaged by the mother of his son? We do not know. All Alain seems to interested in is kick boxing and sex with any woman he can find. Cold, matter of fact, physical only sex to boot.
The other lead protagonist is Stéphanie who is also somewhat alienated from the world. Though in her case there is a plausible reason for this. When we first meet her she is in a rather strange and seemingly impersonal relationship with a jealous lover. Shortly after this, Stéphanie who is a trainer of killer whales suffers a horrendous accident at work and awakes in her hospital bed to discover she has lost both of her lower legs to amputation. She is now out of work and seems to have no friends to turn to. In what might be seen as an act of desperation she phones Alain, who she met briefly while he was a bouncer at a nightclub. He comes round to see her and in his matter of fact, disinterested way, agrees to help her. For example, he takes her to the beach and carries her into the sea, so she can swim. Gradually they develop a strange, impersonal, but practical relationship. They have sex, but he continues to have sex with other women. The other side of Alain is his love of violent kick boxing, which is shown in all its brutality. Strangely, Stéphanie is drawn to this world and eventually becomes Alain’s manager and takes charge of the fights and the betting.
However their personal relationship does not appear to be going anywhere and Alain has to suddenly leave everyone in Antibes, including Stéphanie and his son. He ends up somewhere in Alsace and it looks like the film might end with this rupture. But no, somewhat out of the blue, Alain has a sort of Damascene conversion, as a Deus ex Machina event changes his life forever. This comes very suddenly and has a bit of a forced feel to it. But then again, this may be the way it happens in real life. A completely unexpected happening can lead to a complete change in the way people behave or see the world.
The film is dominated by the two stars. Matthias Schonaerts is very convincing in his portrayal of the unfeeling, alienated and somewhat brutal Alain. There is a painful edge to his performance. Marion Cotillard is amazing as the physically damaged Stéphanie. After from her first brief scenes all tarted up for the nightclub, she appears most of the time as a rather dowdy and most unglamorous woman. Though she has more in the way of conversation than Alain, this is primarily a very physical film. Particularly so in the case of Stéphanie’s character. It is a tremendous achievement of Marion Cotillard to so convincingly play the part of someone so physically damaged. Great credit must go to the Computer Generated Imagery department. However it is the actress herself who conveys both the pain and the joy in re-experiencing anew the pleasures of living, whether it is swimming, sex or just walking about again.