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Twist of Fates

Rust and Bone (2012)

Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics

Jacques Audiard knows how to inhabit the body. In his films he manages to bring us inside the bodies of his characters so that we can also feel what they are feeling. But not really their emotions — Mr. Audiard has less time for emotions than almost any other filmmaker currently working. What he is somehow able to convey is the actual physical sensation of swimming in the ocean, dancing in a nightclub or hitting someone in the head.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his little son Sam (Armand Verdure) arrive in haste at the run-down coastal apartment of his supermarket-cashier sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) and her truck-driver husband Richard (Jean-Michel Correia), whom Ali has never met before. Sam’s mother has abandoned him; and Ali is not really very interested in being a dad. Fortunately Anna is willing to take them in, not that they go on about it. Ali goes on interviews — detailing his experiences as a kickboxer, fighter and security guard — and gets a job as a nightclub bouncer. One night he breaks up a fight in which Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) gets a bloody nose. He ends up driving her home. In her apartment she gives him ice for the cut on his hand; and he sees that she works with killer whales at the local marine park. Stéphanie’s boyfriend makes a little scene, so before Ali goes he leaves his number just in case.

Stéphanie goes to work; and she, her fellow trainers and the whales begin the day’s show to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Then something unexpected happens. After some time passes, Stéphanie calls Ali. And then even more startling things begin to happen.

Her accident has been discussed quite a bit; and even though it is shocking and upsetting, it is not the point of the film. Before the incident, Stéphanie took her body and her resulting power for granted and has to adapt. And even though we see just about every inch of Ms. Cotillard, the movie is really interested in how she uses her body to adapt mentally afterward. Her fight against depression and her change of personality is expressed through her body and not through her words.

Part of this is surely due to the influence of Ali, who barely talks and registers little visible interest in anything except cage fighting matches on YouTube. He is also a terrible dad to poor little Sam. But somehow Mr. Schoenaerts makes Ali compelling and sympathetic, who seems to be a basically decent guy even as he knocks other people’s teeth out of their head.

The relationship between Stéphanie and Ali is the beating heart of the movie. Ali understands instinctively what needs to be done; Stéphanie is able to accept Ali for exactly what he is. Ms. Cotillard is magnificent as always, while Mr. Schoenaerts is quietly building himself a career as a more intellectual Muscles from Brussels. “Rust and Bone’s” weakness is that it ignores many issues as Ali and Stéphanie spend time together, such as: Where is Sam while they’re at the beach? What happened to Stéphanie’s boyfriend? Where are her family? Of course, dealing properly with Sam would have completely changed how the audience sees Ali. And widening out Stéphanie’s world would have removed our attention on her body.

This focus on the physical is something at which Mr. Audiard excels. In his previous film, the wonderful “A Prophet,” nothing is more visceral than the young Muslim prisoner’s attempts at hiding a razor blade inside his body. In 2002’s “Read My Lips,” the deafness of the heroine is crucial in emphasizing her isolation; and her joy at the end is practically palpable. (A thesis on the women in Mr. Audiard’s films would be a very juicy one.) “Read My Lips” also foreshadowed “Rust and Bone’s” use of sound, where the ratcheting up of the impact in the fights leaves a juddering impact.

“Rust and Bone” won the inaugural Best Picture prize at this year’s BFI London Film Festival. It’s easy to see why: Its scale, intelligence and willingness to go to some strange places without alienating the audience make this a very good film. The challenge of filming Stéphanie’s body in a naturalist fashion is achieved with no fuss. And the astonishing scene where Ms. Cotillard communicates with the killer whale is by itself worth seeing. But it would have been better if we’d gotten a little further inside their minds. For example, when Stéphanie asks one of Ali’s friends if he really thinks she belongs “out there with those beasts,” he immediately, and quietly, says yes. It wouldn’t have killed anyone for us to learn what Stéphanie thought of that.


Opens on Nov. 2 in Britain and on Nov. 23 in Manhattan.

Directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Mr. Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the short-story collection “Rust and Bone” by Craig Davidson; director of photography, Stéphane Fontaine; edited by Juliette Welfling; music by Alexandre Desplat; art direction by Michel Barthélémy; costumes by Virginie Montel; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and Sony Pictures Classics (United States). In French, with English subtitles. Running time: two hours. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Marion Cotillard (Stephanie), Matthias Schoenaerts (Ali), Armand Verdure (Sam), Céline Sallette (Louise), Corinne Masiero (Anna), Bouli Lanners (Martial) and Jean-Michel Correia (Richard).


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