REVIEW: ‘Rust and Bone’ and the Consequences of Being an Animal

Marion Cotillard Rust and Bone

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.

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Comments: 14

  • Jonathan Kemp November 20, 20123:32 am

    The tattooes on her thighs are actually reversed – she has droite on her left thigh and gauche on her right. Not sure of the reasoning, perhaps they are markers for HIS thighs to go, or perhaps her whole world has been reversed (hence the reversed Es, too).

    • jkillough December 2, 20128:53 am

      Jonathan Kemp I could swear I replied to this comment.  Must complain to LiveFyre tech.  I’ll have to pay more attention when I watch this film again.

  • Arlequin December 1, 20124:53 pm

    Droite : right punch  Gauche: left punch. 
    In french we litteraly say : une droite, means a right punch in face or une gauche, means left punch in face …
    It comes from boxer training, they listen to the trainer who’s shouting in rythm : droite gauche droite gauche gauche droite etc.

    • jkillough December 2, 20128:53 am

      @Arlequin We say the same in English, although we usually add the word “hook,” even though properly speaking most punches are “jabs” in boxing terms.  I totally missed that as the reason for the tattoos.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • loved the film February 4, 20139:23 pm

    I think the significance to “droite” and “gauche” on her thighs is related to her perspective when she looks down. She no longer has feet which point in different directions.

    • jkillough February 4, 20139:23 pm

      loved the film Could be. I think it’s one of those wonderful touches that becomes visual poetry. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • DavidFrench April 7, 201311:06 am

    The tattoos end in a backward e, visually creating a stump of a word, words flow beyond themselves into the next one, these tattoos STOP. At the end, his fists become stumps, poetry concrete….training orcas….training affection….l’os rouilleur?

  • emilyhpark September 11, 201310:24 am

    I was amazed at how the director was able to capture what it’s like to fall in love. The sequencing was so gentle, the pace so life like. Also, I agree that Marion Cotillard was back to the level of La Vie en Rose, the movie I first ever saw her in. 
    Her performance in this movie was like a grenade exploding in slow motion. I loved this movie.

  • jkillough September 11, 201310:35 am

    emilyhpark Many months and many, many films since I saw this, it still resonates. I believe it’s one of my favorites ever made. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  • emilyhpark September 11, 201310:51 am

    jkillough Thanks for writing this! It helped me up the pieces together. I loved the movie but your writing helped me understand a bit more about why I loved it so

  • romanosn January 28, 201411:46 pm

    I just viewed this beautiful monstrosity of a movie in my own home on DVD for the first time.  It’s about a good man who happens to do some very bad things – and then turns around and throws his whole mind, body and soul into his penance to make things OK again.  Sure, his life story is far more extreme than mine, but I think we are all just struggling with our demons and trying to be human at the same time.  I absolutely LOVED this film !  I was mesmerized by the relationship between Alain and Stephanie.  It was all about genuine friendship tinged with some feel-good sex, but it evolved into something deeper .  And the relationship which was so dysfunctional between Alain and his son was salvaged when tragedy could have severed it.  What a movie!  I just can’t stop thinking about it.

  • jkillough January 29, 201411:47 pm

    romanosnNor can I and it’s been well over a year since I’ve seen it.

  • Jennifer Argo October 3, 20186:50 am

    I can tell you why she gets tattooed. I am recovering from sepsis and reconstructive surgery on my legs. The pain of the accident, and some procedures that had to be carried out without anaesthetic, just gas and air (as they can only give you so much in a space of time and I had been in a coma), was unbelievable.
    I have had the same impulse to get a tattoo, never having considered it seriously before, perhaps even in the city I had the accident. It is a primal urge, I have gone through so much, so much pain, physically and psychologically and my body has changed. I could easily brave a tattoo, and so could she. She is mastering pain, admitted this time by her own will and consent.

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