One of the hottest In Competition films so far is Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone,” a dynamic relationship drama centering on a whale trainer and a struggling single father who moonlights as a small-time boxer. Starring Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts as the leads, this atypical love story is set to make waves once it reaches overseas.
Trying to make a fresh start, Alain (Schoenaerts) leaves Northern France with his young son Sam (Armand Verdure) to stay with his estranged sister in a beach town on the Riviera. Taking a job as a bouncer at a night club, he first meets haughty whale trainer Stephanie (Cotillard) while working one night. She gets into a fight; he breaks it up and drives her home, forgetting about her until much later.
After losing both legs in an accident at a marine park, Stephanie calls Alain out of the blue. By now his life is relatively on track, having moved on from his post as a bouncer to one as a night guard at a warehouse. During the days he keeps Stephanie company, gradually reintroducing her to the outside world that she shunned in her depression following the accident. Their relationship grows more complicated as Alain, accustomed to feeling that what he has to offer is more physical than intellectual, agrees to help Stephanie rediscover her sexuality. Meanwhile, his professional life takes a turn when a new employer convinces Alain to get involved in some off-the-books security details and amateur fights, both of which lead to unforeseen circumstances.
At its core, “Rust and Bone” is a story about love. Stephanie and Alain continue to evolve and learn from each other, but never in a way that feels contrived and formulaic like many relationship dramas. Instead, the personal hardships that they endure serve as a de-romanticizing force, not unlike fellow French director Cédric Kahn’s gritty 2011 film “Une vie meilleure” starring Guillaume Canet.
Yet the film would be nothing without the astounding performances of its two leads. Cotillard shines as a vulnerable woman constantly fluctuating between self-acceptance and insecurity in adapting to life as an amputee. In the press conference for the film, the actress merely said of her performance, “One simply pretends that one doesn’t have legs any longer.” And indeed, her restrained yet poignant performance already has Best Actress buzz swirling.
Schoenaerts is equally strong as the volatile but good-hearted Alain. Despite having worked steadily in his native Belgium for over a decade, including a starring role in this year’s Academy Award-nominated “Bullhead,” “Rust and Bone” is sure to be his breakout role on the international scene. Hollywood, take note: in addition to French and Dutch, he also speaks flawless English. Needless to say, American cinema could use more actors like him, who are not only capable of pulling off the macho swag but also the nuanced character beneath.
Organic, beautifully crafted and supremely acted, “Rust and Bone” is a film that packs a powerful emotional punch without ever venturing into melodrama.