(This review is dedicated to film patron Mr Milan Kocman from Clique Media.)
There is so much to admire about Jacques Audiard’s latest effort Rust and Bone. For his stab at the romantic melodrama of sorts, it’s often raw, unflinching and emotionally charged in its depiction of two damaged people (one physically, and the other psychologically) who both find solace and strength in each other, despite of the harsh, unrelenting realities around them. This is no surprise from a director who stormed the French cinema of the last decade with suitably authentic, gruelling pictures of hardscrabble lives. And here, he peels away the sun-kissed glamour of Côte d’Azur to reveal a very different portrait of social strata peopled with working-class civilians scraping for a living – with Matthias Schoenaerts hard-up Ali, a single father who had to go into street-fighting to feed his son. It’s a very Dardennes-esque world, with all life’s tribulations seeping out of the edges.
And if the gritty, hardcore reality is not enough to make things ever more bleak, Audiard unleashes orca whales on Marion Cotillard’s beautiful yet world-weary whale trainer Stephanie, leaving both her legs amputated – a horrific accident that will no doubt smash your emotional chords to smithereens. Cotillard’s performance is the film’s most redeeming aspect, more than convincingly playing a woman literally torn in half, plunging her to the point of suicide and existential desperation, and yet never begs for you sympathy. She eventually finds hope and inspiration to live in Ali and his tempestuous, dispassionate perspective in life. A scene of her on a wheelchair, rediscovering her days of being a whale trainer, brandishing hand gestures in the air, soundtracked to Katy Perry’s Firework sounds like a freak accident in itself but turns out to be one of the most moving scenes you’ll see this year. Cotillard, and in respect Audiard, pull this off wondrously.
It’s an utter shame, then, that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to its compelling first half. As soon as Rust and Bone pulls away from the fascinating central relationship between Stephanie and Ali, the picture derails into a meandering, unfocused narrative, with Ali being embroiled in some corporate spying, which strangely feels as if it belonged to a completely different movie. Audiard inexplicably crams far too much material in the latter half and saddles the characters with overwrought castigation, stretching both credibility and plausibility to a near breaking point. Without giving too much away, the main problem here is the writing, rushing the narrative to a conclusion that never feels hard-won. Boy fell through the cracks. Father commiserates. Five minutes later, father becomes boxing champion. Group hug. End of film. Consider this an admonishment to filmmaker who apparently knows a thing or two about screenwriting.
A pair of powerful performances from Cotillard and Schoenaerts lend Rust and Bone some muscular, dramatic gravitas, only to be hampered by a preposterously conceived final hour that completely betrays the audience’s emotional investment in the first half. Audiard hasn’t put a foot wrong so far, until now.