After premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jacques Audiard’s elegant yet muscular Rust and Bone (2012) was met with assorted feelings, with the film’s heightened melodrama and contrasting aesthetics appearing somewhat jarring in comparison with the director’s previous work. Thankfully away form the harsh judicious glare of the Croisette, Audiard’s latest study of alienation is gradually beginning to achieve the acclaim it deserves.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) has taken his young son Sam (Armand Verdure) and absconded from Belgium for the Antibes to live with his sister and her husband – attempting to build a better life for the two of them. Whilst the sentiment in these actions may appear to be those of fatherly affection, Ali is far from the model father, displaying an immaturity unbecoming of a parent. He finds work undertaking numerous manual jobs, one of which is as a doorman at a nightclub where orca trainer Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) likes to go and dance. Stephanie and Ali’s bond grows closer after she suffers a horrific accident which sees her lose the use of legs, with these two fractured souls bound together by this peculiar twist of fate.
Rust and Bone might well be Audiard’s most provocative and divisive film so far, yet not in the same way anyone would have imagined after watching A Prophet (2009) or The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). Pushing the boundaries of acceptable audience manipulation, Audiard has successfully created a maudlin endurance test that pulls at the heartstrings before releasing moments before they shatter. Shot through a haze of warm hews and relying heavily on music to arouse the hive of throbbing on screen emotions (with the film’s eclectic soundtrack perhaps the most contentious element on display), every shot is immaculately framed before becoming tarnished at each emotional crescendo by a concoction of blood, sweat and tears.
Cotillard will no doubt steal the headlines with her performance as this physically and emotionally damaged whale trainer, yet it’s her on-screen partner who truly demands our attention. Schoenaerts is such a commanding physical presence, both literally and figuratively, with his imposing figure, yet innocent gaze mutually intimidating and compelling. Successfully conveying his characters substantial strength whilst concurrently revealing his internal vulnerability, Schoenaerts is a fitting ‘Beast’ to Cotillard’s physically imprisoned ‘Beauty’, in perhaps the closest we’ll ever see Audiard come to making a conventional fairytale.
By the time the film reaches its truly gripping finale, where upon a frozen lake Audiard pulls all his calculated techniques together to an almighty climax, audiences will already have decided whether or not they’re on board with Rust and Bone’s over-dramatic approach. Those who are will feel each of Ali’s punches on the icy ground like a sucker punch to the gut, truly prepared to let Audiard get under their skin and twist and turn them through a range of emotional responses – like some mischievous puppeteer with a penchant for alternative folk and pop princesses.
The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs from 10-21 October. For more of our LFF coverage, simply follow this link.