What is it we do to survive? Who is it we love? Who is it we fight? What are the forces seen and unseen that push our lives in directions we could have never expected? These are the questions that Jacques Audiard tackles in his latest, "Rust And Bone," a beautiful, moving story of two fractured lives that somehow, together, combine into a single (if unconventional) whole.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his son Sam (Armand Verdure) are doing what they can to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Living on the street, eating what they can find or salvage, they soon find refuge, and some semblance of stability, with Ali's estranged sister Anna (Corinne Masiero). She too is doing what she can to make ends meet, working part-time as a cashier in a supermarket, in addition to temporarily looking after dogs for a breeder. In the small apartment complex where she lives, the residents share resources, skills and company. Seeing the state of Sam's clothing, she immediately goes to the neighbors to find him more suitable attire and arranges to enroll him in school. It's less to help out Ali than to at least do right by a child whose mother used to use him to smuggle drugs.
Meanwhile, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), it seems, is better with animals than with people. She's a trainer at Marineland, working alongside a team who lead the killer whales through a routine at one of the park's many shows for the public. While she can command large mammals, men are a different matter. A fight outside a club leaves her with a bloody nose, and the incident finds her crossing paths with Ali, who has found a gig working there as a bouncer. He escorts her home, driving her car, and talks his way up to her apartment so he can ice his quickly swelling hand, an injury sustained while breaking up the fight. Stephanie's boyfriend Simon is none too pleased to see her rolling in late at night, accompanied by a strange man. He's angry and jealous, but Ali is nonplussed, quieting him with a few quick words and a glare. He leaves Stephanie his number "just in case," and after Ali is gone she tells Simon, "No more orders." But soon, orders are all she'll get. Horrifically injured in an accident during one of the shows at Marineland, she loses both her legs, her job and, at her lowest, her will to live.
A few months pass, and one day Ali, now working as security guard, gets a call out of the blue from Stephanie. He's heard what happened to her on the news, and she invites him to come by. Perhaps out of curiosity or pity, he makes the time to see her and she's much different than he remembered. Ali finds her depressed, shut up in a new apartment, shades drawn. Asking if she's had any visitors, she says "lots" but it's clear none have been as direct as Ali, and Stephanie soon cottons to his approach. He refuses to tiptoe around her disability or even consider it a disability at all, and rather remarkably, within his first visit, he's taken Stephanie down to the beach and helps her to take a swim in the ocean. The freedom she has in the water is intoxicating, a smile crosses her face. Through Ali, she now has hope.
And if you think from here a conventional romance blooms, you would be wrong. One of the greatest strengths of the film, adapted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from Craig Davidson's book, is how committed it is to the characters. Simply put, Ali is impulsive, because he has to be. Early in the film he steals and pawns a digital camera in a quick sequence, because it will buy a meal for him and his son. He takes jobs not on their merits, but foremost because they pay. Whether it's working as a guard or, as he does later, taking part in illegal, vicious, bare-knuckle and (almost) anything-goes fights, it's because of the opportunity they afford at the moment. Ali's hard scrabble life has only proven that nothing is ever permanent, and he has to take what's available at the time. And that holds true for relationships. He has no time for sentiment, and hell, barely any time for sex (it's notable that his first two sexual encounters in the film are interrupted by phone calls) and so the idea of entering a relationship is not just foreign to him, it doesn't cross his mind. Nevertheless, there is a undeniable spark between the pair that keeps them in each other's orbit, but through it all, the actions of Ali and Stephanie never feel anything less than organic and real.
And it's really down to the performers who take Audiard's densely plotted (everything above is more or less first act stuff) and tonally tricky story, into the realm of masterpiece territory. Following on the acclaim of "Bullhead," Schoenaerts may find his breakthrough here, with comparisons to Tom Hardy to come. He's a similarly commanding physical presence, but he's the rare breed with acting chops to spare, finding the vulnerability beneath his character's exterior that helps us understand him, even when he's at his selfish worst. As for Cotillard, she's predictably fantastic, again showing why she's one of the best actors of her generation. So much of what Stephanie is going through is written on her face, and Cotillard says more in a carefully sly smile than anything spoken. The two share an easy chemistry, and watching them both here, with great material to work with, is a huge pleasure and, at times, a master class in film acting.
Blood and water flow freely in "Rust And Bone," with the film's biggest dramatic and tragic moments playing out through those elements. And guiding it all is Audiard who, if he hasn't already established himself as one of France's (and world cinema's) finest auteurs, will do so here. There are minor quibbles — particularly with the use of music in certain parts of the film (though you'll never guess that one of the most touching moments is soundtracked to Katy Perry, go figure) — but by the picture's twisty finale, in which Audiard navigates a late-stage twist with ease and emotion, you know you are in the hands of a master who is directing with the confidence and command that few possess. That he also manages a secondary social message as well — aimed at companies who treat their workers as criminals, leading to a vicious cycle of distrust and unemployment — and manages to seamlessly intertwine it with the narrative, is just a further testament to his skills. "Rust And Bone" is a standout, a towering picture we can't wait to see again and that, this early in the year, is a no-brainer favorite for the awards season. [A-]