After lighting up Cannes with A Prophet, his sober yet gripping thriller about an Algerian immigrant who works his way up the prison hierarchy, director Jacques Audiard invited (and received) ridicule with Rust And Bone, a silly-sounding love story between a street fighter and a whale trainer who loses both legs to an orca. But the two films are not as far removed as they seem, in both spirit and quality: Both continue Audiard’s practice of filtering American genre fare through a more overtly poetic sensibility; both are about broken men coming to terms with their masculinity; and both are bold, supremely confident pieces of filmmaking, unafraid to court a little embarrassment in service of the big gesture. It says something that Audiard’s “killer whale movie” stages its most emotional moment to a Katy Perry song and still deserves to be taken seriously.
Many of the torments facing Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust And Bone are strikingly similar to those in Schoenaerts’ breakthrough role in Bullhead as a ’roided-up henchman in the black-market cattle-hormone trade. Schoenaerts and his 5-year-old son have hitchhiked their way to live with his working-class sister (Celine Sallette) while he gets his act together. He picks up a few odd jobs, but he’s a brawler by build and by nature, and it eventually lands him a position as a nightclub bouncer. One night he saves Marion Cotillard, a Marineworld trainer, from a melee at the club and drives her home, where he’s again called upon to protect her, this time from a jealous, violent boyfriend. The two part amicably, but Cotillard comes back into Schoenaerts’ life after the accident robs her of both legs and wounds her in less visible ways, too.
Based on Craig Davidson’s short-story collection, Rust And Bone is a deft, sidewinding drama about two people overcoming disabilities in body and soul. There’s something deeply romantic about the ways each of them try, consciously or not, to rehabilitate the other, and great complexity, too, in the schism that develops when one comes closer to being whole than the other. Cotillard and Schoenaerts have a raw chemistry that’s unquantifiable yet totally convincing, even though her character seems like the last person to accompany a Neanderthal like him to an underground street-fighting match. The film stumbles a little with a deus ex machina ending that hastily attempts to glue the fractured bits of narrative back together, but Audiard’s conviction strengthens the seal. In his hands, something as simple as a dip in the ocean becomes a vivid, sunkissed, restorative paradise.