"Sex, fighting, killer whales and parental neglect," reads the New York Times's oddly specific content warning for Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os en Français). Maybe we can add dog breeding, expired yogourt, illegal supermarket surveillance, and outer-thigh tattoos to the list and come close to a survey of the film.
Taking here and there from Craig Davidson's 2005 short story collection of the same name (primarily from the stories "Rust and Bone" and "Rocket Ride"), Jacques Audiard's follow-up to A Prophet certainly has a busy feel to it. The best short story usually has enough soul and fodder to support a feature-length film (Have we had the novel vs. short story adaptation conversation yet?) and it's rare that an entire, unconnected collection gets translated. Robert Altman's Short Cuts, based on the stories of Raymond Carver, was great, and Jesus' Son gets pretty close to the gobsmacked terseness and drugged-out attention span of Denis Johnson's collection (seriously one of the best collections, if you ask me).
When I call Rust and Bone busy, I don't mean to suggest that it lacks focus. Its many interests (as somewhat represented by the Times's warning) are the organic diversions of life. Story arcs are often represented by a steeply rising graph of action that plummets into denouement. An EKG reading of the peaks and valleys of an abnormal heart's beating might best map the structure of this movie.
The story is sort of this: Impoverished, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his five-year-old son leave Belgium and the boy's mother for undisclosed reasons (the leaving out of the impetus strikes me as a real short-story move) for coastal Antibes. Having had some experience Thai boxing, Ali lands a job working security in a dance club. One night he breaks up a fight, out of which he pulls a fairly battered Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). Their paths cross, then diverge. Stephanie is an orca trainer at Marineland (get ready for those warned-of killer whales), and in a performance accident she gets her legs gobbled. Beyond Ali and Stephanie meeting again, I don't want to gab about too much more. There's swimming and competitive bare-knuckle street fighting and ice skating without skates.
On the topic of grisly back-alley fisticuffs, Stephanie asks Ali, "You aren't afraid?" "Of what?" Ali asks, as though the idea of being pummeled being a bad thing never entered his mind. In Davidson's story, "rust and bone" describes the taste of getting socked in the puss. The idea of life coming at you with its fists up is a simple one, but just because an idea is simple doesn't mean it's easy. Watching Rust and Bone, you might taste a bit of rust and bone in your own mouth, or at least the metallic, chalky memory of whatever literal or figurative fights you've been in. These are two important questions: "Aren't you afraid?" and "Of what?" To live a life without fear is all well and good, but maybe only if you know what you're not afraid of. "Of what?" is a triumphant question as much as it can be a naive one.
With its focus on the human as body, as flesh, and the ways in which the flesh and body can be equally mangled and loved, Audiard's film reminds me of a brooding, violent version of Almodóvar. Coincidentally, Rust and Bone and The Intouchables (I think it might have been on the cinema schedule a few months back or something...) were contenders for France's Best Foreign Film submission to the Oscars. The themes of both are very similar, but the deliveries couldn't be more different. I've had a lot of Bookshelfers coming out of The Intouchables lauding it for how inspirational and uplifting it is. I'd love to think that those same people who've been back to see The Intouchables three or four times will find Rust and Bone uplifting, but I don't know.... Both films focus on confinement, by whatever circumstances, but in Rust and Bone you actually feel hampered, hemmed, and at times claustrophobic. The shots themselves are tight, the frame feels like a cage that's too small, the characters just barely fit into their environment. Framing aside, look out for how many examples of literal confinement and enthrallment appear in the film. Rust and Bone isn't as light and free as The Intouchables, but I'd argue that the journey of perceiving one's cage, never mind overcoming it, is all the more powerful, and I think you'll be able to offer a more articulate, visceral answer to that question, "You aren't afraid?"
And, if the film does nothing else, it should at least leave you with a new-found appreciation for that insipid, ubiquitous song, Firework: