An unconventional love story between an unreliable father, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), and a victim of a killer whale attack, Stephanié (Marion Cotillard), "Rust and Bone" positions the wrong person as the lead protagonist. With five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) in tow, Ali leaves Belgium to come live with his semi-estranged sister (Corinne Masiero) and her husband in France. Ill-equipped as a father, he procures a job as a club bodyguard and meets Stephanié during an altercation. She is an orca trainer at a Sea World-esque theme park and, when she loses her legs during a freak accident, it is Ali who comes to her proverbial rescue after all else seems hopeless. They delve into a sexual relationship as Ali begins to make money fighting in back-alley brawls, but is there a future between them? Ultimately, it will take another near-fatal incident for Ali to suddenly realize the responsibility of being a father and what's most important in his life.
"Rust and Bone" was written and directed by Jacques Audiard and co-written by Thomas Bidegain (2010's "A Prophet"). A slice-of-life intermittently contrived but struck in a low key, it is Stephanié's journey from a self-sufficient young woman, to a physically and emotionally shattered victim, to a soul revived in her discovery that life can still be good and go on in spite of her handicaps that is most affecting. Regrettably, her fascinating story takes a backseat to the blander, more obvious melodrama of the man who becomes her confidante and sex buddy, a ne'er-do-well struggling with his job of being a father. Matthias Schoenaerts jolts to life as Ali in time for his third-act arc to take hold, but before this he, like Ali, is a dreary blank slate, neither likable nor charismatic enough to care about. Ali consistently stands at a distance from the viewer, particularly harmful since his character is the one most closely followed.
Marion Cotillard (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises
") acts circles around Schoenaerts, upstaging him without trying as the more complex Stephanié. Were "Rust and Bone" first and foremost her film, the outcome might have had a more lasting effect. Certainly, she goes through the rawest and realest of emotions, her devastated discovery that she's lost her legs poignantly contrasted by later scenes where she adapts to her current circumstances even as she is unable to forget the things she's lost. It is safe to say there has been no better on-screen use of Katy Perry's "Fireworks," used here as a nostalgic cue of Stephanié's old life and the things she took for granted. Stephanié and Ali, himself renewed by a second chance with Sam, might have a future together, but it arrives with more of a shrug than audience swoons since their connection is not sufficiently explored. "Rust and Bone" lays its heart on the line, but its focal point is off. If the title is any indication, maybe an oil can could have helped.