Performances of rare and enduring power fuel "Rust and Bone," the story of a chronically unemployed bare-knuckle street fighter and a marine mammal trainer maimed in a grievous mishap who find in each other companionship and some version of love.
Though some of its plot details seem ludicrously contrived, this improbable romance hangs together as an astonishingly well-acted, deeply felt story about how circumstance can force ordinarily self-reliant people to depend on others. The laboratory for this experiment in human behavior is, admittedly, extreme.
Ali (Matthias Schoenarts) flees to the resort town of Antibes on France's south coast, with his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). They're escaping some dreadful, though unspecified, situation with Sam's mother, and looking to get a fresh start with the help of Ali's sister Anna (Corrine Masiero). The seaside setting is beautiful, but "Rust and Bone" lingers more on the gritty side of the vacation paradise — the big-box stores where its poorer residents work, and the dilapidated houses where they live.
In a poignant scene at the movie's opening, the hulking Ali gathers up food left behind by other passengers on their train, to make a meal for Sam. "Rust and Bone" is full of such moments, which manage to convey the everyday desperation that seems built into Ali's life.
Ali appears tough and resilient, but he's also selfish and immature, spending most of his free time in Antibes training in gyms and chasing women. His part-time job installing illegal cameras to monitor retail workers on behalf of their managers promises easy money, but jeopardizes the job his sister relies on.
Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a trainer of killer whales at a local marine park, first encounters Ali at a nightclub, when he rescues her from an aggressive male admirer. Later, she loses both legs just above the knee when an orca show goes horrifically awry. The filmmakers use computer effects to show Stephanie's injury in convincing close-up, but it's Miss Cotillard's richly expressive acting style that makes the illusion work. She won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," and her performance here is no less remarkable.
Stephanie gets back in touch with Ali after her injury, and he helps her re-enter her life with a combination of friendship, sex and sense of purpose. Stephanie helps Ali manage his career as a combatant in illegal fights, after the underworld fixer who introduced Ali to this shadowy world is forced to disappear. His wildness is at first a replacement for the killer whales Stephanie trained, but soon his sense of detachment gnaws at her.
The obstacles the movie sets in front of Ali to impel his transformation are a bit mawkish and manipulative, but Mr. Schoenarts is able to sell it with a powerful and convincing performance. While "Rust and Bone" doesn't entirely transcend its unlikely premise, it is a tribute to the realism of director Jacques Audiard and the naturalistic acting of his stars that it winds up being more sublime than ridiculous.
TITLE: "Rust and Bone" (in French with English subtitles)
CREDITS: Directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Mr. Audiard and Thomas Bidegain; based on short stories by Craig Davidson
RATING: R, for strong sexual content, nudity, profanity and violence.
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS