Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts turn in a pair of magnificent performances in director Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone,” which Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain adapted from a pair of short stories by Craig Davidson. (Davidson’s collection “Rust and Bone” also provided the film’s title.)
Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a whale trainer at an aquatic park. Schoenaerts plays Ali, who has retreated to Antibes, a town on the French Riviera, with his five-year-old son in tow. Ali seems strangely blond for someone with his name, until you realize that it’s short for Alain; as for the kid, his name is Sam (Armand Verdure), and his mother has been using him as a drug mule. Ali may be out of work and unreliable at the best of times, but he’s got to be better at parenting than his ex.
But Ali also knows he can’t do it alone; hence, his relocation to Antibes, where his sister and her husband live. Ali and his sister have long been out of touch, and sis is none too thrilled about sharing the burden of child care, but they are family and so she takes them in.
Ali’s new job —— the first of several he’s bound to have in quick succession —— is as a nightclub bouncer. He meets Stéphanie on his first shift; she’s just been in a brawl, and she’s bleeding. Fending off her male attacker has left Ali with a sore hand, so after escorting her home he stops in for some ice. These things, ice and injury, become major and recurring motifs; Stéphanie suffers a physically debilitating trauma when a whale careens out of control, and when she reaches out to Ali he doesn’t hesitate to lend her his unsentimental help in getting her out of the house and back into the business of life, including sex. But his decency and kindness do not extend to love; he won’t allow it, partly because it’s a guy thing (especially when the guy in question is physically developed but emotionally immature), and partly because he’s perfectly comfortable in his own body and loathe to muddy things up with feelings.
In a way, that’s a survival trait. One’s on Ali’s new jobs is as a bare-knuckles back lot fighter. He makes a good sum with each brawl, but the beatings he takes are only of the flesh-and-blood variety; Ali is much more wary of putting his heart into play. But Stéphanie is, in her way, just as tough as he is —— then, too, she’s skilled at training larger, more powerful animals than herself, and Ali certainly qualifies. This connection becomes that much stronger when Ali’s regular fight arranger is taken out of the picture and Stéphanie steps in.
Her skills as a trainer have an effect: When Ali’s down and getting pummeled in one particular fight, Stéphanie steps out of the van (usually a no-no in a sport that doesn’t allow women to be spectators) and approaches the site of the contest. Seeing her there gives Ali the strength he needs to prevail.
Audiard and Bidegain set out to create a melodrama, and to that end they tackle extreme situations and big outcomes. They need characters as flinty, and as scared, as Stéphanie and Ali to pull it off; this film benefits immeasurably from the casting of Cotillard and Schoenaerts. “Rust and Bone” is not a traditional love story… or maybe, under the bruises, fractures, and blood letting, it is, but it’s also something more than that. Audiard and his magnificent actors give tough love a good name.