Everything about Rust and Bone (originally De rouille et d'os), Jacques Audiard's follow up to his arthouse hit A Prophet, should signify a failure not a film that is not only good but actually great. Audiard has managed to pull a magic trick of sorts in weaving a beautiful story from subject matter and difficult to navigate sequences that so easily could have seemed trite and cringe worthy in the hands of many other directors.
The most compelling case for this is in a sequence in which Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer who has recently lost her legs in an accident, sits in the sunshine and imagines conducting her whales again. Seated in her wheelchair, her eyes closed, the sound of Katy Perry's Fireworks swelling on the soundtrack - a call back to an earlier scene - she waves her arms, imagining directing the whales again. As the music gets louder it subtly shifts into Alexandre Desplat's beautiful and tender score for the film. As one's shoulders initially hunch, ready to cringe at what could be a terribly corny scene, Audiard pulls every string in exactly the right way, and as one's shoulders relax the scene reveals itself to be not cringe worthy at all but emotional and near rapturous.
It is also Cotillard's extraordinary performance that pays dividends in this and many other scenes. Quite possibly her finest performance, she is utterly convincing as Stephanie, a character that is emotionally complex and intriguing from the outset.
Stephanie is only one half of the 'odd couple' that makes up the central thrust of Rust and Bone though. After a chance meeting at a club with the troubled and reluctant father Ali - played by Bullhead's Matthias Schoenaerts - Stephanie begins to develop a rather unconventional relationship with him, with Ali providing her with everything that she needs, liberating at her physically and emotionally. It is never quite clear if Ali understands that this is what he is doing for Stephanie and how important it is to her emotional well-being and her psychological recovery from her accident and this ambiguity is well played in subtle exchanges and sparse dialogue.
It is in this uncertainty, for the audience and for Stephanie, as to Ali's motivations and feelings that one can find some of the real substance to Rust and Bone. The emotional conflicts central to the film are extraordinarily deftly handled by Audiard but there is also a lot resting on the shoulders of Cotillard and Schoenaerts. Cotillard is, as I have said superb, and Matthias Schoenaerts proves without doubt that his performance in Bullhead was not just a feat of great casting, as his character here is complex in a number of different ways and he rises to the challenges the role involves.
Ali's relationship with his son Sam is a particularly difficult area, with Ali struggling from the very beginning to deal with the responsibility thrust upon him. His character is unlikeable at almost every turn and it is almost painful to watch some of his interactions with his son Sam (Armand Verdure), especially in contrast to his burgeoning relationship with Stephanie, and it is perhaps only in the final extraordinarily powerful few seconds of the film that one can ultimately warm to him.
Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain have filled Rust and Bone with contrasts and parallels - the physical ability of Ali and Stephanie's disability, the Ali/Stephanie and Ali/Sam relationships and so on - deeply seeding a number of interesting ideas into a script that is at its core a thinly veiled a melodrama. Audiard has then obscured the melodrama further with an almost minimalist filmmaking approach, save for a few sound mix choices and an appropriate use of slow motion at times, creating something that is compelling to watch unfold and never too insistent upon moving you.
The structuring of the story does become a problem at times, with an unfortunately abrupt jump in time shortly before the final act being particularly troublesome, but the strong character development helps smooth over any cracks in the way the plot moves forward. These minor issues aside, Rust and Bone is an incredibly well crafted and intensely emotionally absorbing film worthy of serious attention.