Cannes Review: Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os) Is a Major Misstep for Jacques Audiard
Jacques Audiard's films so far -- at least, the ones I've seen -- have always been about an individual triumphing over adversity, about someone at a remove from society who struggles not so much to gain acceptance from the world at large, but to take on that world on his or her own terms. This was true of Mathieu Kassovitz's mythomaniac protagonist in Un héros si discret, weaving a world of lies in which he can exist as a hero, and also goes for Emmanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel's blind woman and small-time crook in Sur mes lèvres, finding a shared humanity in each other and a form of recognition that they do not obtain elsewhere. In his last film, A Prophet, Audiard offered his most potent version of this tale so far, using a prison as a microcosm of French society to show his hero's rise from abject misery to a position of some eminence by the end of the film.
In his new movie, De rouille et d'os Audiard offers a further exploration of this, except he's gone for a double whammy this time, with a crippled orca trainer (don't laugh) and a small-time kickboxer and single father finding true love and, well, the rest is unclear. This is, for my money, Audiard's least focused film to date, with a story that fails to lift off, characters who don't always convince, and a sorry resorting to holiday-Instagram visuals to pass the time.
The story, then: Ali, a lost, angry young father and his tiny son who he doesn't especially care for, wash up at Ali's sister's house in the south of France where, one evening in the club where Ali has found a job as a bouncer, he meets Stephanie, a young woman who trains whales to dance in a local sea-club. Oh god, give me strength to carry on. Anyway, when Stephanie loses the use of her legs in an unfortunate orca-based accident (please, stop laughing), Ali helps her regain her confidence and finds a caring aspect to his personality which he did not know he had. She soon becomes his manager as a bare-knuckle fighter. But when two wildly unconvincing plot-twists threaten to derail the story, will he and Stephanie manage to make it together?
I won't spoil the ending.
The film has things going for it, which in the beginning can help you overlook the poor use of music (Bon Iver in the opening minutes, a bad fit for a train scene) and over-reliance on decorative cut-away shots. For a start, as ever, Audiard films his characters right up close to their bodies, seeing them as physical beings who don't fit in their surroundings, but nevertheless capturing an animal grace. Matthias Schoenaerts, though he often fails to suggest hidden depths to his character, has a sometimes magnetic presence that makes you understand how Stephanie (Cotillard) might be drawn to him, and is impressive at playing the part of a complete thickhead. Cotillard gives her all to her role, imbuing her character with an earthy determination, but except for a handful of scenes the part feels underwritten; in a scene where she confronts her lover about their future as a couple, she is full of a quiet intensity that for the first time in the film registers her as a living, breathing character. Elsewhere in the picture she struggles with some frankly ludicrous scenes, in particular just after she has lost her legs, and (especially) when she conducts an imaginary parade of whales to the tune of a slice of euro-house just after she has been miraculously borked by Ali into happiness once more.
The film, to me, smells of a product whose creator was not sufficiently interested in it to give it its dues: the montage scenes, the wilting of the plot in the final stages, the bizarre irruption of voice-over at a key moment, the over-use of slow-motion: in short, the incomplete attention to proper storytelling, mark Rust and Bone out as probably Audiard's weakest film. He is certainly a terrific and audacious director, but the film feels a lot like a misstep.