Rust and Bone: An Elemental Taste for Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone (France, 2011) is director Jacques Audiard’s sixth feature-length movie since 1994. It follows A Prophet, an all-male story set in a Corsican prison that hammered emotion through an unrelenting dyad of prison yard and prison cell scenes. (He co-wrote the script with Thomas Bidegain who screen-wrote A Prophet). In A Prophet, Tahir Rahim as the prophet and Niels Arestrup as the Corsican prison jefe Cesar Luciani, expressed with quick moves and downcast eyes the brute intractability of prison life. Audiard made this movie in 16 weeks and didn’t do research but relied on instinct to pull taut the tenuous loyalties and seemingly intransigent powers of corruption.

Rust and Bone, a “love story” by contrast, was part of Santa Fe Film Festival’s excellent 2012 lineup, and also was a finalist for the Palme d’Or at Cannes (which A Prophet won). Short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson constructed the storyline.

At the opening of the movie we have two figures, a man and a boy  trudging up a city street. The colors are wrung out, as whites washed too often with the darks. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), about 30, stubbled and strong, is Sam’s Belgian father; a towheaded Sam (Armand Verdure), with a forbearing character, is five.

Opening scene: Ali half-turns to look at the boy walking several paces behind him. Then he is holding the boy who’s collapsed, beanbag-like, over the crown of his head; they travel by train, and arrive at a verdant town in southern France, at the house of Ali’s sister who, it appears, will take him and Sam in.

Where do they come from?

From a life about which we learn little, save that Ali was a boxer who won a prize for it earlier, and that Sam’s mother had been using the child to smuggle drugs.

For Audiard, details are poetic and pellucid — the plastic bags which Ali has retrieved from trashcans with which to feed himself and Sam. Ali’s compassionate but so impatient too, a character who doesn’t want to be ruthless fully but can’t submit to gentleness either.

You have to pay attention where you can learn things as Audiard’s films are character-driven and rely on hypnotic visuality to paint the scene of the world outside. As in the prison of A Prophet you couldn’t escape the boxes, the cell corners and the relentless walling-in, here nature has an expanding surface, but floats underneath with flecks of food in service to the Blakean dictum (‘red in tooth and claw’).

How we are different from animals, effectively, isn’t a case fully argued for by Audiard. He prefers to transect cinema as if because of what the camera can see (that we can’t), the omniscient is either some force of deity or the animal within us that makes us fight and makes us compassionate by turns.

If the sea is mother, it can just as easily be a training ground for those who play rough to just keep standing.

As we track Ali coming to live with his sister and brother-in-law, we see them as snared into poverty but of Marxist worker dispositions. Is their easy rage at one another displaced rage at the machine? The sister looks after puppies to make extra money. Sam enrages his father for getting soiled  playing with them. Metaphor plays through image constantly: the striving to stay one step ahead of animality.

Working as a bouncer, Ali meets Stephanie (a brilliant Marion Cotillard) who has just been punched in the face by un mec, a guy. Ali evidently keeps him off and drives her home, chastising her that she resembles “une pute,” a whore. As he checks out the apartment a man, Simon, commands Ali to go, but not before Ali notices from pictures that Stephanie is a whale trainer at Marineland, and leaves her his phone number.

In fact that pool we saw over the credits, is where the Orcas swim. The something ominous this way comes feeling. Stephanie as the lead trainer goes through the routine, but we feel the tension that day of the whale. In a giant splash she is pulled in the tank. Merely a bleeding silhouette: when next we meet her she has lost her legs, and is in horror of the implications in her hospital bed. The director is unflinching in capturing her: as she throws herself off bed, disengaging bandages. He makes us look just as she can’t face it. Depressed, she lies fetal; time slows, save that finally she telephones Ali’s number.

So begins their incipient and direct yet delicate relationship. He takes her swimming and lets her experience her physicality. He has been conscripted to start fighting again by a worker he knows from his new job as a security guard. Those are backyard match-ups with cash prizes won by besting impressive opponents. It’s possibly a to-the-death proposition. Stephanie asks to accompany him and watches from the car. He wins but as he does, the stakes go up.

The story, yes, becomes (finally) a love story but not of the slightest or merest cliche. For Rust and Bone, the phrase and the film, is finally of tastes in the mouth, of injuries felt in the body that are as a layer to what “love” actually is.

Rust and Bone, is a film so gorgeous and compellingly exacting that it almost feels biological. Wincing won over into a feeling of cautious, yes, hope.


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