“I juke, try to circle clear, but he steps on my foot and hits me with an overhand right. Lips flatten against teeth, mouth filling with the taste of rust and bone.” Craig Davidson, Rust and Bone.
The latest feature from Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Read My Lips), takes its title and scenarios from a collection of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson. Brawny men beat each other to a bloody pulp in brutal illegal fights, a young boy is trapped beneath thick ice, a woman is made amputee by a grisly workplace accident… Were it not for the film’s beauty, and a screen-illuminating performance from Marion Cotillard, the world of Rust and Bone would almost be unbearably bleak.
Like its lead, bare-knuckle boxer and single father Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), the audience is subjected to blow after violent blow. Rust and Bone’s hail of misery is brightened though by a handful of exhilarating, euphoric sequences: a double amputee swims weightlessly in a glittering sea, a whale trainer directs an invisible Orca to the effervescent sound of Katy Perry’s Firework, a surely beaten fighter makes a Lazarus-like return to his feet… Alongside barbarity and after disaster, the film tells us, are gentleness and hope.
We first meet Ali and young Sam as the father and son arrive penniless in the sparkling Cote d’Azur, introducing a strand of social realism that contrasts the destination’s postcard image with the poverty of its less salubrious quarters. Bunking with his checkout worker sister Louise and her long-distance driver husband Richard, Ali finds work first as a nightclub bouncer, then a security guard, before being turned onto making a living by competing in dangerous and illegal boxing matches.
It’s at the nightclub Ali encounters Stephanie (Cotillard), a sylph whom he rescues from an aggressor, kick-starting a reciprocal series of rescues each performs for the other. After an accident leaves her without her lower legs (an effect brilliantly achieved by the film’s special effects team), Ali plays a crucial role in Stephanie’s rehabilitation, just as she later lends him her indomitable strength and enables him to feel intimacy for perhaps the first time in his life. (One of the film’s most arresting images is that of two bloody, fractured fists punching through thick ice and retrieving someone trapped underneath, and it’s a neat metaphor for Stephanie’s persistence in dragging Ali out of his emotionally frozen state.)
Schoenaerts is excellent as taciturn, emotionally shut-off and essentially unlikeable Ali, but the film belongs to Cotillard as resilient, tough Stephanie. It’s fitting that Rust and Bone’s UK release came after a summer of sport that’s left us with images of amputees as anything but victims. Defying the gender rules at Ali’s machismo-soaked boxing matches, Stephanie exudes a steely don’t-fuck-with-me air that belies her vulnerability. Sporting audacious, ironic tattoos and new prosthetics, Ali’s teasing nickname for her is absolutely apt: she’s Robocop.
Audiard directs the sex scenes with a similar audacity, holding our gaze on Stephanie’s nubile body as if engaging us in a staring contest. When she rolls down her (surgical) stockings, Stephanie repeats an act of seduction now so familiar on screen as to be a cliché, but rewrites it for a different type of body. Whether his aim is to shock or to normalise the little-seen combination of disability and sex, Audiard’s film – and Cotillard’s performance – moves the representation of disability in cinema along a good few notches.
The sex scenes certainly aren’t the only visual impressions Rust and Bone makes. Audiard and Stephane Fontaine, director of photography, have created some simply gorgeous cinema.
As in Craig Davidson’s stories – which the film is less an adaptation and more a remix of – Rust and Bone‘s excruciatingly violent fight scenes are rendered with a kind of balletic grace. A knocked-out tooth performs slow-motion pirouettes before coming to land on the dusty, blood-soaked soil. It’s a dance of force and inertia, of physicality and power, and horrible though it is to watch, you can’t look away. The scene of Stephanie’s accident is similarly beautiful in its awfulness, a counterpart to her glorious first swim months afterwards, one of the many images of baptism and rebirth in a film about coming back from the dead, fighting.
What Audiard hasn’t done is make his multiple narrative strands cohere. One sub-plot about illegal surveillance and privacy infringement dangles to an unsatisfactorily contrived conclusion. The story lurches unsteadily one way and then the other, piling melodrama on top of contrivance and ultimately tying things up with an overly neat bow. None of that however, lessens the impact of Rust and Bone’s numerous strengths.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here