“What’s up Robocop?”
There’s nothing like a little tragic drama helping troubled souls find purpose in their lives to warm your heart. No, really, there isn’t. With the way the movies tell it, sometimes I get jealous I’ve never gone through a horrible near-death experience or witnessed someone close to me doing so because those things always seem to meander their way into allowing their victims to achieve that ever-elusive moment of clarity. Sure the path probably contains a few more rough patches—with the worst generally yet to come—but sometimes those that are lost need a push to jar them awake. No truer words could be spoken for Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), their desire for punishment and pain one misstep away from destroying their lives or the ones of those caught in their wake.
For writer/director Jacques Audiard—who wrote with Thomas Bidegain off a Craig Davidson story—De rouille et d’os [Rust and Bone] ends up being more accessible than his highly praised A Prophet. Yes, deeply conflicted souls exist at the center of each, but allowing his leads here to affect more than criminals resonates with additional power. These characters aren’t rich, cultured, or upstanding citizens by any means, but they do have family that counts on them to do the right thing. So when selfish tendencies cause our leads to stumble off the path of righteousness—if they ever truly were on one in the first place—an avalanche of pain is wrought while they languish in the humiliation they cannot forgive themselves for or hope to avoid repeating.
Ali is trying to do right by his son Sam (Armand Verdure) by moving in with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) and her husband Richard (Jean-Michel Correia) in Antibes, France. His temper gets the best of him—often at the negligence of the boy—and earning money by expelling his aggression on the streets is all that satisfies. Sexual trysts, pumping iron, and illegal moonlighting work provide welcome side effects in the meantime and it’s this lack of purpose that makes his chance encounter with Stéphanie so profound. A woman originally assumed some whore who started a bar brawl, she is revealed to be much more complicated. The sole person possessing an ability to ground him, he in turn is the only one willing to treat her like a human after a horrible accident takes her legs.
They connect because they’re broken and honestly too wrapped up in themselves to notice how damaged the other is. It may not be the most desirable situation once sex is involved despite no official relationship, but this doesn’t diminish the cathartic effect their hidden love contains. Respect is ultimately what binds them together despite finding it difficult to show the same to many others in their lives, but they also unabashedly use one another too. Ali sees Stéphanie as someone he can care for who doesn’t ask for too much—unlike his son—and she sees him as a bridge to the life she once lived. Where infatuation and sexual desire used to follow wherever she went, only pity now remains. Whether courtesy of Ali’s insatiable libido or not, he never lets her accident define her.
And so we follow these two as they seek more than the emotionally problematic lives they’ve thus far lived. Finding shelter in each other helps them survive, but only in their separation can they begin to worry about fixing themselves. The old saying goes that you cannot begin to love someone if you can’t love yourself and it holds true here once Ali’s penchant for trouble sours the warm welcome he received after leaving Belgium. At some point we all must grow up and take stock to discover what we’re made of and capable of before our blindness harms all we wish to protect. Life has thrown Ali and Stéphanie a couple curve balls both could easily have let ruin them and yet they somehow find a way to want to persevere—intentionally or not.
Rust and Bone contains many beautiful moments of abstraction from flecked whirlpools of water to meticulously blocked, extreme close-ups to the kinetic destruction Thai boxing inflicts and yet none hit harder than Ali and Stéphanie’s trip to the beach after her accident. Schoenaerts gives the same distant sympathy against an openly fierce power as he did in last year’s Bullhead; making it so you aren’t sure if his intentions are pure or purely selfish. Once Stéphanie sees the water and overcomes her self-consciousness, Cotillard’s ability to takeover a film with her beauty—body and soul—arrives. The unbridled joy and complete release of trouble and uncertainty is like a weight off all our shoulders because she has been reborn. It’s the first time both characters are shown free from the pressures they so willingly place upon themselves.
It’s just the beginning of their rocky journey together but who knows what Ali would have done when faced with the climactic decision eventually laid before him without it. Audiard excels at letting his actors reign supreme through authentic performances and purely formal compositions filled with an animalistic tenacity. The special effects removing Cotillard’s legs below the knee are flawless and yet it’s her portrayal that helps make it so. We believe her plight as well as her willingness to fight; the way Schoenaerts treats her in bed and out giving the courage needed to once more become whole. And it’s her love slowly eating away at his armor that turns a monster into a human—a coward into a man. There’s always so much more beneath the surface if only someone is willing to unearth it.
 Left to Right: Marion Cotillard as Stephanie and Matthias Schoenaerts as Ali. Photo by Jean-Baptiste Modino, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to Right: Marion Cotillard as Stephanie and Matthias Schoenaerts as Ali. Photo by © Roger Arpajou / Why Not Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Marion Cotillard as Stephanie. Photo by © Roger Arpajou / Why Not Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics