The latest from French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) is a movie that’s likely to confound expectations. Especially if you approach it expecting any of the following: credibly developed characters. A coherent story line. A film that commits to a specific genre rather than vacillating between several like some sort of cinematic mood ring.
I’m not sure I’ve previously encountered a picture with an identity crisis quite this profound. If you blew up a Blockbuster and edited together two hours and two minutes of random debris, the result would probably prove more tonally, thematically and stylistically cohesive than Rust and Bone. More entertaining, too.
In its opening moments, Audiard and cowriter Thomas Bidegain give the impression their film’s going to tell the story of a father and son starting a new life in the south of France. The father, Ali, is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, the star of 2011’s Bullhead. Armand Verdure costars as 5-year-old Sam. The filmmakers guard their backstory as tightly as a classified government secret, but we eventually figure out they’re poor and virtual strangers to each other. Ali may have absconded with the child because his mother used Sam to smuggle drugs.
Just as their relationship begins to come into focus, however, Audiard seems to lose interest. His attention shifts to a nightclub where Ali has found work as a bouncer, and a brawl has been started by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. Yes, you read that correctly. With Ali’s help, the petite hell-raiser makes it home safely to her apartment, where the two are greeted by her suspicious boyfriend. Noting that Ali intimidates him, Cotillard’s character, Stéphanie, warns her boyfriend she will tolerate “no more orders.” But, just as we’re about to enter the dark terrain of a psychological drama, we find ourselves suddenly at...
SeaWorld! Or its Côte d’Azur equivalent. And faster than you can say, “Free Willy,” Stéphanie (who works with trained orcas in one of the park’s shows) is injured in a freak accident that results in the amputation of both her legs below the knee.
Stéphanie contemplates suicide and generally withdraws from the world before discovering inner strength she never suspected she possessed. We appear to be in for a saga of inspirational triumph, then Audiard goes all attention deficit disordered on us again and changes the subject to Ali’s out-of-left-field quest to fight his way to the top of the kickboxing game. There’s still an hour to go.
Watching Rust and Bone is like watching a festival’s worth of short films that all share one or two characters but almost nothing else. The director never settles on a theme or form, and only a handful of subjects manage to sustain interest across more than a few scenes, including Ali’s occasionally brutish treatment of his son and his on-again-off-again sexual relationship with Stéphanie.
There is every reason to expect this movie will be quickly forgotten — but, if it is remembered at all, that will doubtlessly be for its preoccupation with Cotillard’s nude and digitally abbreviated body. While these scenes may set a record for the most expensive meaningless sex ever committed to film, they don’t represent a technical advance. Robert Zemeckis did all this nearly 20 years ago with the Lieutenant Dan character in Forrest Gump.
The problem is that sex is far from the only thing in Rust and Bone that’s meaningless. Based on a couple of short stories from a 2005 collection of the same name by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, the script is a maddeningly artsy and arbitrary affair. Who knows — maybe Audiard picked the wrong two stories. Maybe it’s a French thing. All I can say for sure is that filmmaking this self-indulgent screams “refund” in any language.