Ali (Schoenaerts), a drifter in his twenties, takes his young son to the south of France to shack up in his sisters garage. Scoring a job as a bouncer, he has a chance encounter with a killer-whale trainer (Cotillard) that will affect them both.
Liberally adapted from Craig Davidson’s short-story collection, Rust And Bone poses that age-old question: what do you do when life serves you lemons? If you’d seen Jacques Audiard’s last two films, A Prophet or The Beat My Heart Skipped, you might reasonably expect the answer to involve a razor blade or the bruised face of some unlucky perp. Here, though, the Frenchman is on more gentle, if no less citric form, delivering one of the year’s most intimate, human films.
At its heart are brio-filled performances by Marion Cotillard and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts. As Stéphanie, trainer of Marineland’s killer whales, Cotillard is brusquely in control, a free spirit who pours herself into her work and punches out her frustrations on the dancefloor. Schoenaerts’ Ali is a man at odds with himself, a bare-knuckle fighter who scrounges food on trains, neglects his son and depends on his sister’s charity. Little do they know, but this odd couple will need each other to survive.
Their first encounter is more meet-brute than meet-cute. The fallout from a bloody nightclub brawl establishes a tang of uneasy chemistry between the pair. She recoils from him but takes his number anyway, drawn by his bullish masculinity. Yet when a catastrophic accident at her work reconnects them, it’s Ali who helps her, without pity or condescension, and it’s she who rekindles his humanity.
A Hollywood version of this — Free Willy meets Nicholas Sparks — is too corny to contemplate, but Audiard’s unsentimental handling lends the material an emotional heft reinforced by Alexandre Desplat’s sparse score. The sex scenes are intimate but not coy, while its domestic struggles are framed with claustrophobic intensity; but it’s out in the gauzy glow of the French Riviera that the film delivers transcendence. Audiard has already proved himself a poet of savage souls, but in one long, spellbinding shot of Stéphanie and her killer whale, he proves he’s much more besides.
Another triumph from Audiard and a Cotillard masterclass, this bruising, tender melodrama lingers long in the memory.