Rust and Bone is among the most physical films I have ever encountered. Now when you employ the term “physical” this is often meant to imply “sexual” and, to be sure, Rust and Bone contains its fair share of “sex”. But this is not softly-lit “romantic” sex, although it is “romantic” in its own visceral way, and that is because Rust and Bone is as “visceral” as it is “physical”.
The opening passages present Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) rescuing his five year old son Sam (Armand Verdure) from the clutches of a mother using him to deal drugs. They take shelter at Sam’s sister’s (Corinne Masiero) home. He takes odd jobs, including work as a bouncer at a dance club which is where he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard).
He meets her as we meet her, the victim of an unseen, unexplained fight in which she is lifted off the floor, nose bleeding. She seems strangely unaffected by it. Still, Ali escorts her home and into her apartment so he can nurse his hand – bloodied and bruised on account of defending the lady’s honor – in a bowl of ice. He meets her apparent significant other in what is apparently a less than ideal relationship.
Ali is an ex-kickboxer, looking to return to the game. Stephanie trains Orcas at a some sort of French Sea World. And not long after meeting Ali she falls victim to a terrible accident, artfully and not exploitatively shot, losing both legs. Eventually, in the midst of understandably ongoing despair, she calls Ali for……what? Companionship? Help? She likely does not even know.
Here the film creates an interesting dynamic because it makes no attempt to hide the fact that Ali is a dense human being. He is a bad father, ignoring and even occasionally, if unintentionally, abusing his son. He forgets to pick Sam up from school because he is boinking a random exercise instructor at the gym. He seems to possess no grasp of normal human emotion, and this is precisely what makes him so perfect to become Stephanie’s ally.
Everyone else is so taken aback by her gruesome injuries that they seem unwilling or unable to communicate with her normally. Ali, however, seems to have so little going on upstairs that he is, in a way, almost unaware of the fact Stephanie is a paraplegic. He takes her to the beach, insists she goes swimming, and convinces her. And it is in a sumptuously shot sequence that finds the sun shimmering off the water’s surface as Stephanie finally rejoins with the water – which can only assume has value to her on account of her job – that we see her regaining her true sense of touch and discovering how much it means to her.
Their relationship continues this unconventional trajectory. They continue to have purely-for-pleasure, commitment-less sex. And, in fact, the most erotic moment in the film is not even one of these passages but an illegal kickboxing fight that Ali takes in the middle of who knows where that Stephanie attends and watches from the van that brought them. When it concludes, Ali emerging as the victor, as bloodied and beaten as she was in the fight when they first met, Stephanie fires up the vehicle’s air conditioning just cool down from the sexual charge it it sets off.
So much of the film is just this – two characters connecting on the most tangible level imaginable. And this is why it is so disappointing the film resorts to cinematic happenstance to resolve itself and to keep itself going. The problems, however, are not necessarily the little bits of unexplained or convenient business used to drive the story forward – such as, Why exactly does Stephanie choose to call this bouncer she hardly knows in the wake of a life-altering injury? Or, How fortunate is it that this guy who turns up at Ali’s work also works in underground fighting?
No, the problems arise when Jacques Audiard (he wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain) resorts to a fairly ridiculous coincidence involving Ali’s job and his family to spearhead the third act and then forced melodrama to provide the requisite come to Jesus moment for Ali. A film of such thrustful feeling should be above phony mechanics. And yet, in spite of this betrayal, the rest of the film is so palpably honest I find myself extending it an olive branch.
The body always wins.