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.