French director Jacques Audiard’s international breakthrough was The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), a remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1978), which concerned a man trapped between seemingly contradictory worlds: An aspiring concert pianist, he also ran jobs for his loan shark father. If Audiard has an authorial signature, it’s people caught in between things.
His new Rust and Bone is even more odd and hard to pin down than Beat (or Fingers): It charts the relationship between Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a buzzcut brute of questionable intentions, and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a brusque trainer of killer whales who has recently lost her legs on the job. Both are fiercely independent (read: kind of dickish), and his frequent lack of employment dovetails nicely with her newfound inability to perform basic tasks. He helps her out, taking her to swim in the ocean and eventually casually asks if she wants to bone. In fitting with Audiard’s interest in between-spaces, the two become fuck-buddies, if not romantically involved.
The narrative is a quintessential French character study: somewhat formless, catching two characters, often not in synch, all while moving toward some kind of redemption. It is anything if not predictable: not the rhythms of the two main actors—both predictably excellent— and not even Stéphanie’s accident. Instead of a clear mauling, it’s filmed with a single underwater long take that observes one of her whales doing ... something? What’s more, Stéphanie, initially a legless depresso, calms down, gets her shit together and even acquires fake legs before the halfway mark.
It’s thrilling not knowing where Rust and Bone is going next. Even Ali’s discovery of the dubious world of underworld fighting doesn’t go where you think it will. Less impressive is that you likely wouldn’t ever guess this would conclude by putting Ali’s young son in danger, proof that even films that seem to be allergic to easy emotional manipulation and other provincial staples of film-going can’t always stay that way.