(De rouille et d’os) “Fuck, this feels good.” All breath and halt, that’s the kind of meant, intended, felt, tossed-off, bottomlessly true moment that permeates the length of Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone.” Vital and galvanic, elementally physical and unceasingly sensual, its story, based on two short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, can be reduced to the meeting in the Côte d’Azur town of Antibes of Ali, a burly, not-so-bright, underemployed Belgian bouncer-boxer (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a trainer of Orca whales for Marineland. After their first blunt meeting, the now-homeless Ali drifts away into conflict over his five-year-old son with his sister, and Stéphanie has an accident: she’s still beautiful, she’s still Marion Cotillard, but she’s lost her legs. This sounds terrible. Awful. Lurid. Base melodrama. But this is by the co-writer-director of “A Prophet” and “Read My Lips” and “The Beat That My Heart Skipped.” Instead, this brusque war story, this tale of hand-to-hand and heart-to-heart combat is so fantastically compelling I underrated it the first time I saw it, and after watching it a second time, after making Newcity year-end lists, I still can’t figure how all these pieces fit together. I mean, intellectually, sure, you can reduce it to components of image and sound and music and superb, understated performance, but its punch? Even down to Stéphanie’s sudden, violent, vital entrance: bloodied in the nightclub he’s guarding, barelegged, flat-footing it away before he dutifully, not chivalrously, takes her from this place. Urgent, tumbling, as confident as the characters are heedless.
Take one scene, probably the year’s most tersely effective sequence of music and motion, when Stéphanie is alone on her rooftop deck as the sun falls and dusk turns to gold and smudge, and she sits, so alone, in her wheelchair, and she begins to move her arms, to wave her arms, to dance, yes, scored to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” just as an important earlier scene had been—”‘Cause baby you’re a firework / Come on, show ‘em what you’re worth / Make ‘em go, oh / As you shoot across the sky / Baby, you’re a firework / Come on, let your colors burst / Make ‘em go, oh /You’re gonna leave ‘em falling down”—and there’s a more-than-slightly acute framing where Stéphanie’s thin arm is across the frame, her palm and fingers are extended, covering the bottom half of her face, her large, large-lidded eyes bursting above the composition, the gesture, she moves her arm, and she smiles, slightly, only just, just so, and there’s a cut, the film remains in motion. Livid perfection. Cinema. The maudlin and therapeutic mush you’d expect is the farthest thing from hand.
Audiard visits a physicality that isn’t necessarily female or male, but of the body, and toward the body, as in Cotillard’s wide, lidded eyes when she watches Schoenaerts punching and thumping and bleeding through illegal bare-fisted takedown fights: yes. Fear. Pride. Envy. Empathy. Desire. Pride. “Rust and Bone” is the kind of movie I’m always hoping to see, where every stroke or cut, each gesture, is at once specific and yet ineffable and arranged one after the other in little bursts of epiphany or simple alert observance. A more fluid, less obstinate object than “The Master,” it still shares with that film the belief that an exquisite frame can flicker into something else as we watch. Then you could go off on the film as a body-image fable, post-Cronenberg, post-Verhoeven. I’m content to bask in Audiard’s attenuated rhythms from unexpected leaps in logic, quickly cut and assembled shots that move one to the next, as freighted as scenes even before you’ve fully registered them, and a consistent dazzle of light as foil and foe. Along with an emphatic score by Alexandre Desplat, Audiard features additional songs by B-52s, Bon Iver, Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners, Jean-Michel Correia. 120m. (Ray Pride)
“Rust and Bone” is now playing at Landmark Century and Renaissance. The French trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.