French director Jacques Audiard’s last film A Prophet (Un Prophète, 2009) was a huge critical hit at Cannes 2009 (where it won the Grand Jury Prize), and so expectations were high for his follow-up Rust and Bone (De Rouille et d’Os, 2012). Based on a series of short stories by the Canadian author Craig Davidson, Rust and Bone gives us the French Riviera, but one far detached from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s.
Bulky ex-boxer Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a force of nature; a man who seems to have taken many knocks in his time and yet somehow always managed to pick himself up again. Suddenly finding himself having to look after his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure), Ali heads south to the Cote d’Azur to stay at his sister’s house in Antibes, eventually finding work as a bouncer in a nightclub. It is in the process of breaking up a fracas in the club that Ali meets Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a fiercely independent woman who works as trainer of orcas in a local marine park. However, following a serious accident at work, Stéphanie and Ali’s paths cross again, and an unlikely romance develops.
Audiard continues to focus his camera on the alienated and the marginalised of contemporary French society, and yet never allows Rust and Bone to descend into predictable social realist misery. This is party due to the fantastic central performance he gets from Cotillard, who seems to savour having a role with a bit more to chew on than recent Hollywood parts. Also hugely impressive is Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor who will be unfamiliar to many. It is his raw energy and simultaneous sensitivity that keeps Audiard’s film from straying into mawkishness, even when it takes a detour into overt melodrama.
Perhaps sensitivity isn’t the right word for Audiard’s latest. After all, it is Ali’s forthright insensitivity to Stéphanie’s plight that does her the most good, encouraging her back towards some kind of normality. Ali himself is by no means perfect. Dabbling in dodgy surveillance with his work mate Martial (Bouli Lanners) and illegal street fighting, Ali is brutally neglectful of his son (who, in a lovely touch, is always complaining that his father’s hands are cold). As with Rust and Bone’s fight scenes, Audiard has a knack of making the ugly beautiful and contrastingly (in the case of the picture postcard location) the beautiful, ugly.
Featuring a magnificent original score from composer Alexandre Desplat (who also scored Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom  and will be giving a master-class at Cannes later this week), Rust and Bone is a compelling, original and gruelling drama about the energy needed to survive the many (often horrific) trials and tribulations of life. Don’t be surprised if Audiard’s film (and the two leads) are vying for award recognition as the festival draws to a close.
The 65th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May, 2012. For more of our Cannes 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.