In the George Bernard Shaw play Heartbreak House, one of the characters cracks, "The natural term of the affection of the human animal for its offspring is six years." Luckily for young Sam, in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, he's only five.
And so Sam's ne'er-do-well father Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) allows himself to be saddled with the boy, prompting a move from Belgium to Antibes in the south of France. There, Ali can again test the kindness of his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), moving into her humble abode as he seeks his latest odd jobs.
An aspiring kickboxer, Ali begins pulling a legit paycheck as a bouncer at a nightclub, where one night he breaks up a fight involving Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard). Immediately upon this chance encounter, it's clear that the two share an animal attraction, if a wary one on Stéphanie's part. Soon enough, they begin hooking up, unexclusively. (If you know nothing about Rust and Bone, and wish to know no more before seeing it, skip the next paragraph, which deals with a fundamental and unavoidable plot point.)
The already-high stakes of Stéphanie's greater emotional investment raise precariously when she undergoes a life-changing trauma at work: in her capacity as a smiling, boogie-ing killer-whale trainer at a marine park, Stéphanie loses both legs at the knee. To Ali's credit, his instinctive response to Stéphanie's shamed depression is to reach out to her in friendship and tenderness, and their relationship tentatively moves forward. But Ali's never been one to put down roots for long, and it's entirely possible Stéphanie is repeating her workplace mistake by letting her guard down around animal instinct.
Loosely based on Craig Davidson's short-story collection of the same name, this French-Belgian production isn't terribly subtle in its theme of "the human animal," but it's a notion we'd do well to ponder, and Audiard (Read My Lips, A Prophet) makes a good match for the material. Though the writer-director has shown an affinity for brutish characters, his empathy for them, unsparing eye, and patience with a story constitute a distinctly European approach: in America, this sort of drama has become unfortunately passé.
That Schoenaerts (Black Book) isn't well known on these shores works in the film's favor: by playing the frequently unsympathetic Ali close to the vest, he productively keeps the viewer guessing—as much as the script does—whether his default selfishness or his capacity for love will win out where it concerns Stéphanie, Anna and Sam. Cotillard has more overt colors to play, and handles them deftly, as Stéphanie must make a choice to keep living in the face of consistently trying physical and emotional challenges; by making that choice, her life becomes riskier, but also more full than she had imagined possible.
When all is said and done, Rust and Bone has significant blemishes that don't quite come out in the wash—the melodramatic turns some viewers won't cotton to, a third act that feels aimless, and an ending feels like a tacked-on reshoot—but the picture persists on the strength of its committed performances.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]