Rust and Bone: heavy-duty drama

Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to the universally acclaimed Un prophète is an emotionally wrenching drama with powerful performances.

Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to the universally acclaimed Un prophète is another heavy-duty drama, with a different focus and feel. Mathias Schoenarts (from last year’s foreign film Oscar-nominated Bullhead) is Alain, a former boxer who drifts from Belgium to Antibes to start his life anew after a marital breakup, accompanied by his five-year-old son (Armand Verdure). He crashes with his sister (Corrine Masiero) and gets a job as a nightclub bouncer.

On the job, he meets the troubled Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), who he drives home after rescuing her from a fight. Not long after, Stéphanie loses her legs in a freak accident at her job at a Marineland-like water park. The rest of the film is about the development of an unusual relationship between the two as she struggles to rebuild her life.

Audiard doesn’t shy away from making his characters complex; Alain is frequently neglectful and occasionally abusive as a father, and Stéphanie has a violent temper. The director also leaves intriguing gaps in the characters’ development: we don’t know why Stéphanie was out getting into bar brawls while her live-in boyfriend sulked at home, and we never find out why Alain’s marriage broke up.

In a role that obviously requires both physical limitations and incredibly raw emotion, Cotillard is quite amazing. For his part, although his hulking physique makes it difficult to imagine him playing outside of a certain range, Schoenarts is also compelling as the emotionally inscrutable Alain.

Audiard is a great film stylist, but one who uses technique at the service of drama rather than for its own showoffy sake, with an aesthetic that looks great without drawing attention to itself, apart from the occasional use of disorienting close-ups (when these occur, it’s usually a signal that something horrible is about to happen). The special effects involved in portraying Stéphanie’s amputated legs are remarkable, a rare instance of film technology being used for dramatic purposes.

While he’s not quite Lars von Trier, Audiard does show a similar desire to put his characters (and audience) through the emotional wringer. It’s a powerful film, but one that puts you through multiple levels of discomfort before spitting you out, more or less intact, on the other side. ■

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