While director Jacques Audiard says that he wanted to offer a love story for these harsh economic times, his follow-up to Oscar-nominated “A Prophet,” “Rust & Bone,” which screened for press on Thursday morning, is far from a romance. It’s more of a survival tale about violence and healing. Audiard sets this naturalistic and intimate relationship drama–loosely inspired by a set of Craig Davidson short stories– of two damaged people who help each other to survive in Cannes, on the sea.
Yet again, Marion Cotillard is riveting as Stephanie, who is strong enough to train performing Orca whales, yet when we first meet her, has been smashed in the nose by a man at a nightclub. She is rescued and driven home by Ali, the powerful club bouncer (Mattias Schoenaerts). He bluntly tells her that if she dresses like a whore, she can expect this kind of behavior. Not trusting her unhappy boyfriend, Ali gives her his card.
SPOILER ALERT When Stephanie calls him back, she is depressed and lonely. The boyfriend is long gone, and she is recovering from the amputation of both her legs after an horrific Orca accident. A simple man, physical and inarticulate, Ali offers his help; he insists that she go out in her wheelchair for some fresh air, and carries her into the ocean, where she is restored by the waves.
Their relationship unfolds in strange ways, as he brings her into his violent world as a fighter, which excites her, and she starts to come to life and learns to use artifical limbs. He’s living with his sister and his son, and doing odd jobs. Clearly, he tends to act out physically rather than communicate with words.
The movie is unsentimental–despite a sweet Alexander Desplat score–and while Audiard says he tried to keep the violence to a minimum, he can’t help but assault us with blood and flying teeth. These characters are not easy to love. But they are real. And Sony Pictures Classics plans to introduce the film on the fall festival circuit. While Cotillard, who has won the Oscar (“La Vie en Rose”), is in the Academy club, and Schoenaerts broke out in Belgian Oscar nominee “Bullhead,” the awards season fate of this movie will depend on how it fares with art house audiences in America.