“Rust and Bone” is a tough movie about tough people for a tough audience. So prepare to get roughed up a little.
By MICK LASALLE
San Francisco Chronicle
The main characters are a bouncer who earns money on the side by getting into amateur no-holds-barred fistfights and a woman who trains and performs with killer whales. If she were any tougher, she’d be in a Kathryn Bigelow movie.
In an early scene, Alain the bouncer (Matthias Schoenaerts) breaks up a bar fight and drives Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) home. There, her boyfriend starts giving Alain some attitude, and so Alain just looks at the guy. That’s it, just looks.
But as he does, you can almost see every drop of that boyfriend’s testosterone form into a puddle on the floor, and from then on the poor man might as well be singing the coloratura repertory. Minutes later, Stephanie is rubbing the boyfriend’s face in his fear and telling him that they’re finished.
“Rust and Bone,” directed by Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”), could be described as a demented love story, except that it’s not crazy; it makes perfect sense. It presents two people who ostensibly should not be together and slowly, to them and to us, reveals their points of intersection and the places where they fill in each other’s blanks.
In an American romantic comedy, love is an excuse for people to return to infancy, but this is a French romantic drama, and that means two adults, lots of growing pains and an education.
If you know anything about “Rust and Bone,” you know this is the movie in which Cotillard plays a woman whose legs are bitten off above the knee by a whale. She wakes up in the hospital, this most physical of women, and sees that her legs are gone.
It’s a difficult acting moment in that the audience is expecting a difficult acting moment. All eyes are on Cotillard: What will she do? Will we believe it? And what’s amazing about Cotillard is that in no more than a second, we forget to notice that she’s acting. We’re simply plunged into the character’s circumstances and feel, in a direct and physical way, the character’s horror, her anguish and her animal terror.
(It is, by the way, a scene very similar to the one played by Ronald Reagan in “King’s Row” from 1942. So if Cotillard ever becomes president of France, it started here.)
As played by Schoenaerts, Alain is no hero. He’s a limited guy, an unthinking guy, too sure of himself and without much in the way of human sympathy. Yet it’s his limitations, even more than his strengths, that makes him good company for Stephanie following her accident. He doesn’t feel sorry for her. He barely notices her pain. He is as merciless as life, but he is life; he’s alive.
A more sensitive man would make her feel embarrassed. But for him, she’s a sexual possibility — in fact, her reduced circumstances just mean that he probably has a better shot.
Schoenaerts is, in many ways, as impressive as Cotillard. He shows us a man who has no fear: not a man who has overcome fear, but one who doesn’t really know what it is. Other people walk into the room with a game plan, as protection against what might happen. He has no plan, because he feels prepared for whatever comes, and he truly doesn’t care what anybody thinks.
But in the end, can a person like that, who cares so little, really care about another person? That’s the question of the movie.
Like most French films, “Rust and Bone” has a touch of what Lincoln called “the slows.” It also has that peculiar Gallic tone deafness when it comes to American music. At one point, Stephanie rocks out in her wheelchair, feeling life coming back to her. Guess what song has these magical powers of rejuvenation? “Love Shack” by the B-52s.
Still no one who sees “Rust and Bone” will ever forget this movie or its people.
(At the Glenwood at Red Bridge, Palace, Town Center.)