Every so often, and an all-too-rare often it is, a film strides onto the screens that isn’t a movie, a picture, a flick, or a film.  It’s cinema, and that sounds so pretentious, but other than calling it ‘filmed literature’ I’m not sure how to distinguish Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone from everything else out there.  Indeed, a piece of cinema like this leaves you feeling as satisfied as when you put down a novel that has gripped you from page one and kept you turning the pages until the very end, when you regret it’s over but are filled with gratitude to the storyteller for taking you on such a complete, thought-provoking and fulfilling adventure into the essence of the human experience.

It is clear after Audiard’s previous films The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet that he is fascinated by the world of the voyou, as they say in French, which properly translated means ‘thug.’  But there is a certain underlying poetic meaning to the French word that the English lacks entirely: a ‘thug’ is dangerous in a purely brutal way, whereas the voyou’s danger might be life threatening, but it is also perversely seductive.

In this respect, Audiard is the Jean Genet of modern cinema: he sings hymns to the struggles and martyrdom of his criminal heroes, canonizes them with character and destiny arcs worthy of St. Francis and similar inspirations of religions.  Unlike Genet, there is not a twinge of homoeroticism in his work, which is perfectly fine because the significance of sex is willfully diminished in Audiard’s world.  In Rust and Bone in particular, a heavily underscored point is made that sex is simply a bodily function, akin to eating or urinating, or maybe fighting.  Even in A Prophet, which takes place in a prison, man-on-man sex is just business as usual, nothing to it.  In a particularly harrowing sequence, the young hero, Malik, has to kill another inmate by pretending to give him a blowjob while using a razorblade hidden in his mouth as a switchblade to slice the guy’s throat.  (Yeah, just remembering that made me want to cross my legs.)  Never having had sex with a man, much less flipped a razor blade out of his mouth only using his tongue, Malik practices on another inmate by first arousing him with frottage, which is treated as casually as if he were learning to shake someone’s hand properly.

Rust and Bone begins with the journey a boxer, Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), takes from his native Belgium to Antibes/Cannes on the French Riviera with his five-year-old son, who is now in his care after the boy’s deadbeat, drug-dealing mother has abandoned him.  Like many fighters, he finds work as a bouncer at a nightclub, where he encounters Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) after she is brutally assaulted outside the club by a man whose advances she has spurned.  The relationship gets off to a shaky start—in his forthright, animal way, Alain tells her she shouldn’t be surprised she was mistreated when she was “dressed like a hooker”—but resumes after Stephanie loses both her legs in a freak accident at the aquarium where she works as a killer whale trainer.

Audiard is a master at delivering the expected in an unexpected, fresh way, which is only one of his techniques that I am observing closely as a filmmaker.  While discussing Steven Spielberg the other day with my occasional co-reviewer Chris Cramer, he made a valid point about what a control freak Spielberg is, and no director underscores this more than a polar opposite like Audiard.  In a Q & A that Matthias Schoenaerts gave after the screening of Rust and Bone I attended this week, he mentioned how Audiard writes and rewrites, then rehearses a scene, “But the next day on set, you will do something completely different than what you had discussed with him the night before.”  Added to this on-set improvisation is what I suspect to be a fair amount of experimentation in the editing room, and it pays off handsomely on the screen.

Both Spielberg and Audiard are wizards of the sequence of scenes that slams with dramatic payoff.  Whereas Spielberg is true to the profligate Hollywood blockbuster style he was instrumental in creating and uses the sequence as a grandiloquent setpiece redolent with “scope” (i.e., extensive storyboarding, intricate planning and, above all, serious spending), Audiard harnesses a gritty, chaotic realism with voyeuristic camerawork, fluid editing and improvised performance.  Which is the more effective?  Both are emotionally manipulative, but Audiard’s is closer to my style, or the style I hope to achieve, so my preference lies with him.  I have a healthy respect for Spielberg, as any filmmaker should, but that sort of scope is too rich for my particular brand of filmmaking and storytelling, which tries to uncover authenticity through organized randomness.

Marion Cotillard is back, as in La Vie en Rose back.  After struggling on U.S. screens in Hollywood films with roles like her ho-hum, unbelievable turn in Inception, which wasn’t so much her fault as it was Leonardo Di Caprio’s usual solo circle jerk, in Rust and Bone she reminds us why she was given the Best Actress Oscar.  She might well be nominated again for this.  If we are looking for the next Meryl Streep, it could be Cotillard; it’s just a pity that she will forever be saddled with an accent and cannot show the same virtuosity in English as she does in French.

Two of Audiard’s now-trademark sequences in Rust and Bone involving Cotillard reach ecstatic levels of the kind that leaves you goosebumped with their emotionality and visual poetry.  Describing them would mean having to insert a spoiler alert, and it would be unfair to this film’s makers to spoil anything for someone planning to see it.

matthias schoenaerts in rust and bone

Mattias Schoenaerts could give Tom Hardy a run for his money. His English is good enough.

One thing I can spoil is a detail in the film that seems to make no sense, and from the comments on forums online seems to be confusing non-French speakers.  Why does she get her thighs tattooed?  In fact, I’m not spoiling anything, rather explaining it because the film’s subtitles don’t translate what she has inscribed: DROITE (“right”) on her right thigh, GAUCHE (“left”) on her left, with the Es at the end of both words reversed.  Unless I’m missing something, there is no reason for why she does this.  It is apparently a random gesture for the pleasure of the process of body modification, which a heavily tattooed person like me can fully appreciate.  My tattoos are purely decorative with little or no meaning, but even if you initially invest significance through the symbolism of your tattoos, which most people do, that significance disappears over time.  The act of being tattooed is an event like losing your legs; you are marked, changed.  Such is the randomness of life that by modifying your body yourself you create the illusion of having some control over your destiny.

Audiard might be accused of more ham-fisted symbolic cross-referencing when he makes the visual and contextual link between the brutal, graceful majesty of fighters and killer whales.  But I easily forgive him that because it is central to the film’s premise: that everything, even the smallest detail like the yogurt we are eating, can be related to a larger incident in our lives.  Such is the web in which we live, animals trapped by our natures and the consequences of our actions.

In his Q&A, Matthias Schoenaerts used one adjective repeatedly about Audiard: elegant.  It is the elegance of his style contrasted with the brutality of his subject that is but one of the many juxtapositions that characterize the director’s work.  A lot of this grace is thanks to Audiard’s script (based primarily on the short story Rocket Ride by Craig Davidson, from his collection Rust and Bone), which Schoenaerts said the director spent four years writing in collaboration with Thomas Bidegain, although I suspect that’s an actor’s perspective on how long it takes to get a film financed, no matter who you are.  Far more realistic would be that four years is the amount of time it took to assemble the thirteen or so co-financiers credited at the beginning of the film, not to mention closing the pre-sales to however many territories those deals would have demanded.  No matter: so lyrically told is this film that I wish they had directly translated the French title and called it “Of Rust and of Bone,” but that would be rather ridiculous; Davidson’s original stories are in English.

From this filmmaker’s standpoint, Rust and Bone is the most inspiring piece in recent memory, as nearly flawless as cinema can get.  I’d like to see it win Best Actress, Director, Picture, and Adapted Screenplay.  I could write pages about it, study it scene for scene, cut for cut.  Just go see it, and run, don’t walk, and if you can’t do either, then wheel yourself as fast as you can.

My rating echoes exactly what I exclaimed at the end of the screening, when I had to stop myself from giving it an exuberant standing ovation:

Rust and Bone opens in limited release on November 23rd.  Travel to see it if you must.

Watch the Trailer