Rust and Bone Starring Marion Cotillard

Cannes Film Fest 2012 (In Competition)–French director Jacques Audiard’s sixth feature, “Rust and Bone,” continues his ethnographic fascination with sordid and bleak milieus in this disquieting portrait of damaged subjects converging in the night.

Adapting, with his co-writer and artistic consultant Thomas Bidegain, the pungent stories of America writer Craig Davidson, Audiard combines various styles in shaping a tense and fragile study of two radically different people linked by a bitter and perverse tragic inevitability.

The movie echoes the director’s previous work by tacitly marrying the thread of “Read My Lips,” with his theme about a damaged man’s initiation into the criminal underworld, in “The Beat that My Heart Skipped.”

That splintering style is not always beneficial to the material; at times, it lurches outright into obvious melodrama. Moreover, the incident-driven plot sometimes undercuts both sense and reason, not to mention outright manipulation.

In spite of that, Audiard is such a singular and commanding presence behind the camera and his gift for imagery and dramatic intensity helps elide over the text’s more problematic aspects.

He is also, it must be said, a terrific director of actors, evidenced by his previous work. In “Rust and Bone,” Audiard has woven two gifted performers, the sublime Marion Cotillard and the terrifyingly direct Matthias Schoenaerts. Together, they contribute to the film’s brazen directness and emotional volatility.

Just like the director’s previous Cannes competition entry, “A Prophet,” the new film is a tour de force visually and stylistically, made clear in the evocative (and somewhat showboating) dreamlike opening credit sequence, a Stan Brakhage-like collage of mystifying cuts and experimental superimpositions.

The hulking, naïve Ali (Schoenaerts), with his five-year old son Sam (Armand Verdure) in tow, leads a desultory and grungy daily existence, foraging for food or stealing whatever is available.

The two, who are somewhat wary and uncertain in their own dealings, are introduced shuttling across the county to seek a temporary home with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) in the South of France. (Antibes and Cannes have never appeared so despairing, in the harshly unyielding cool and yellow light.)

A somewhat blank slab, his supposed background in fighting and kickboxing helps him land a gig as a bouncer at a local club. There, he comes into contact with Stephanie (Cotillard), a beautiful though reckless young woman whom he instantly insults by saying she dresses like a whore. Her actual profession, a trainer of whales at a popular French aquatic center, Marineland, is arguably more exotic.

“Rust and Bone” is a work of violent ruptures, physically and psychologically. The story turns on a devastating maritime work accident that shatters Stephanie’s life. The less one knows about the specifics of the accident, the better.

Audiard’s staging of the event, captured in a reverse-angle sequence from the eerily subjective view inside the water, has a terrifying sense of foreboding and loss.

Through a linking style of montage that effective draws out the limpid and suggestive water imagery, Audiard fuses the two. The water that signaled nature’s wrath and randomness brings about her own healing and self-sufficiency.

Yet, the tale is not sentimental, and the movie never conspires to soften the brutal edges, especially of Ali’s story. “Rust and Bone” rarely countenances any brand of redemption.

As their unorthodox friendship assumes an erotic intensity after he willingly offers his services to help her reclaim her dormant sexuality, the emotional and moral dynamics clearly change. Audiard is not content to play out the emotional or sexual consequences of those unusual transactions.

Stephanie’s plight not only fails to soften Ali, he becomes more self-regarding and abrasive, a get-rich schemer who through an amoral accomplice (Bouli Lanners) becomes implicated in the brutish and criminal underworld fight culture. The nasty aestheticism of the fight sequences mitigates against any kind of transcendence or self-discovery.

Rather, it forms a pattern of the movie’s adapt-or-die ethos. Indeed, Ali becomes too engrossed to acknowledge the pain and suffering he causes others, including those closest to him. Likewise, Audiard is working against himself. At times, like Ali’s mistreatment of his son, or Stephanie‘s ugly outburst at a club, the director seemingly losses control.

Yet, Audiard’s virtuosity ultimately transcends the awkward passages. Working with the superb cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, Audiard is a preternaturally skilled imagist in creating and expressing heightened emotional states, like a sublime and overpowering moment when Stephanie is reunited with one of her whales (again utilizing water to spellbinding effect).

Whenever the director gets into (narrative) trouble, he carefully finds his own escape. This is a movie where the actors, with their craggy faces, the beaten-down lines and haggard bodies, are natural and intuitive.

Special praise goes to Cotillard, who is always commanding, vulnerable, and beautiful (for most of the film she is sans any makeup). It’s the actress best work since her Oscar-winning turn as Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.”

The superb Schoenaerts, building on his remarkable turn in Belgian director Michael R. Roskam’s Oscar-nominated debut, “Bullhead,” conveys a staggering toughness and physical abandon that only contributes to his solitude.