De Rouille Et D’os (Rust And Bone in English) is the latest film by director Jacques Audiard, his first since 2009’s magnificent Un Prophète (A Prophet), which just happens to be one of my two favourite films from the past five years (the other being Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, since you asked). I feel slightly bad for only getting around to watching De Rouille Et D’os recently; I enjoyed Audiard’s previous two films a lot (2005’s De Battre Mon Cœur S’est Arrêté – The Beat That My Heart Skipped being the other), and I think he is a director who deserves the utmost attention.
Based on Craig Davidson’s short story collection Rust And Bone, the movie largely revolves around an unemployed Belgian named Ali (Matthias Schoenarts) with vast experience of illegal street fighting and his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). We first see the pair as they travel to Antibes in the south of France to stay with Ali’s sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), and shortly thereafter Ali starts work in the town as a nightclub bouncer.
One evening Ali breaks up a fight involving Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), and subsequently he gives her his phone number after driving her home. Stéphanie works as a killer whale trainer at a local marine tourist park, and in a display of bravura Audiard shows a terrible accident which befalls her in the middle of a whale acrobatics show. After losing both of her legs, she suffers badly from depression as she attempts to come to terms with her disability, and calls Ali, from whom she receives moral support. Stéphanie becomes mentally and physically stronger as a result, and eventually gets artificial limbs to aid her mobility.
Over time the pair become closer, although Ali also sleeps with other women and is open with Stéphanie about his actions. While their relationship tentatively stumbles along, he re-enters the world of street fighting, and Stéphanie finds herself drawn to the violence that surrounds the sport. Before long she ends up as a de facto manager, handling Ali’s bets for the fights he takes part in.
The violent street fighting world appears to be a place of solace, oddly, where both characters are able to release their pent-up emotion and aggression. Ali is addicted to the energetic highs he gets from fighting, whereas Stéphanie is easily seduced by the toughness of the scene and the characters that it attracts. It is here that their mutual admiration flourishes.
Though the romance between the two forms the main subject matter of the film, ample screen time is given to Ali’s relationship with Sam, and particularly the way he struggles to keep his violent side hidden from his young son. The film also explores Ali’s less interesting clashes with exasperated sister Anna, which come to a head when Anna gets sacked for stealing out of date food, something which she blames Ali for in a rather convoluted way.
Audiard fills his film with scenes of great visual interest; lens flare is constantly included (perhaps too much – it starts to look like 1980s MTV after a while), and the color palette features azure and the deep yellow of the sun heavily. These colours are somewhat obvious given the location of Antibes, an upmarket town on the Côte d’Azur, but they jar with the subject matter at times; it’s interesting to consider that the backstreet fights take place under the same glare of the sun that attracts the rich and famous to the town’s seafront.
The scene depicting Stéphanie’s accident in particular is deftly handled, with the whale show turning from a typical tourist-pleasing performance to a fragmented, soundless nightmare with a variety of fast cuts, unusual camera angles and underwater footage, all of which helps to create a sense of dislocation just prior to her terrible fate. (Brilliantly, the first time we see Stéphanie all we can make out through a crowd of people are her legs on the floor after the nightclub fight. Therefore when Ali meets her for the first time she is already struggling to walk; blood on her legs also foreshadows what is to come.)
Stéphanie’s character arc is an extremely interesting one to follow, ably illuminated by Marion Cotillard’s excellent performance. Her romance with Ali may be unusual, but it feels believable, as do the tender and coy sex scenes that take place after her legs are amputated. There are some scenes featuring Stéphanie that echo Hollywood at its cheesiest, though: when she dances to music in her wheelchair, for example, it’s hard not to cringe. Later on a montage soundtracked by Katy Perry’s Firework* shows Stéphanie commanding whales to jump out of the water once again, only this time while wearing prosthetic legs; This is the song that is playing when Stéphanie is injured, so the choice was made for a reason, but it doesn’t quite come off as a subversive moment or an effective pastiche of uplifting feelgood movies. These are merely slight imperfections, and there’s nothing too damaging about a wrong choice or two; moments like these do not ruin De Rouille Et D’os, but they do serve as a reminder that not everything Audiard touches turns to gold.
Schoenarts is very good as the complicated fighter Ali (nice choice of name), a man who struggles to express his feelings verbally to close family members but who clearly cares for his son and strives to provide him with a decent upbringing. His scenes with Cotillard are very strong, and so it is frustrating that Audiard concentrates a little too much on one or two sub-plots. The love story that is central to De Rouille Et D’os is a strong one, and there’s actually no need to detour away from telling it. The way that Stéphanie drifts out of the story a little near the end is also disappointing, given that her story is every bit as interesting as Ali’s. Perhaps more so.
Perhaps expectation was too high, and perhaps I am being a little harsh. It was extremely unlikely that Audiard would match the quality of his previous offering, but some praise must still be given for the director’s latest effort. De Rouille Et D’os is a strong drama, with a pair of excellent lead performances, and some real standout moments that take you by surprise (the accident scene being the best example). There have been a few quirky romantic films I have enjoyed in recent years, but there are very few straightly-played romantic dramas that I would say I really admire. This is one of the better efforts that I have seen. At times I thought I was watching a great film, but there are a few mis-steps that mean my enthusiasm is tempered a little.
Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Written by: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Craig Davidson
Starring: Matthias Schoenarts, Marion Cotillard, Armand Verdure
Running Time: 120 minutes