Rust and Bone is not the first movie French filmmaker Jacques Audiard would be expected to make on the heels of A Prophet, his widely lauded 2009 film. A devastating story about race, class and power, A Prophet takes place within an all-male prison, far from the azure waters of Antibes, the Mediterranean resort town where Rust and Bone is set. But instead of giving us a pretty postcard, Audiard shows us Antibes' inner city and the lives of service-industry workers who aren't on holiday from their problems.
The naturalism of Rust and Bone is countered by its grand flourishes. A freakish event kicks the story into gear, and a brush with death heralds its conclusion. All the while, the film exudes a deep romanticism that appeals to our higher inclinations while revealing that our more primal instincts run the show.
As Rust and Bone opens, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, the acclaimed star of Bullhead) and his young son, Sam (Armand Verdure), are heading south to Antibes to crash with his sister (Céline Sallette). We can see that he's an ill-equipped parent as he feeds the boy half-eaten sandwiches pilfered from abandoned train seats. But once we learn that the child's mother used him as a drug mule, Ali becomes a more sympathetic character. He gets a job as a bouncer at a club, where he meets water-park worker Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) and drives her home after a street altercation. Though he's instantly attracted to her, they are from different worlds.
After Stephanie, a trainer of performing orcas, loses both legs in a whale attack, she impulsively calls Ali. They evolve into fuck buddies, burning up the screen with the intensity of their rutting. Ali, meanwhile, becomes a bare-knuckles fighter in back-alley tournaments. His hands and body take terrible beatings, and Stephanie becomes his improbable manager. As in Audiard's 2001 film, Read My Lips, two people with physical and social problems discover a bond that grows stronger because of these deficits, not in spite of them.
Audiard has created a haunting movie, one that connects on a visceral level that defies easy explanation. Unembellished performances by Cotillard and Schoenaerts have a raw authenticity that anchors the melodrama and makes the characters memorable. Though you'll see Stephanie for only a couple of hours, her presence will linger like a phantom limb.