by David Lamble
In a Jacques Audiard film, when a character receives an offer he can't refuse, he should probably refuse anyway. In Rust and Bone, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a Flemish-born sod driven by a feckless economy to relocate in Antibes in the South of France. He's out of work, homeless, and raising a five-year-old boy (badly, it should be said) when he's approached by a rogue named Martial (Bouli Lanners) to make some fast Euros beating up street toughs even dumber than himself.
"Want to make some money fighting?"
"Are you shitting me? What's your role?"
"I know a guy who organizes street fights, for money, bets."
"How'd you meet?"
"I was installing security cameras in a garage where he was stealing Mercedes. He bought all the tapes."
Against all odds, the invitation to Palookaville pays off for both men as Ali rights his ship by moving in with his hard-bitten sister and her shotgun-owning husband. Even the kid Sam (Armand Verdure) responds positively to the sister's care, although he still must protect his head when Dad gets a wild hair up his ass. In the world of Jacques Audiard, violence is seldom gratuitous, and we feel the pain for several reels after Ali, in a sudden emotional spasm, slams Sam up against the wall.
Loosely inspired by stories of Canadian writer Craig Davidson, whose protagonists save themselves through fighting, Rust and Bone snaps into focus with a chance collision at a local nightclub between Ali and a haughty Orca trainer, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). Their first night is distinctly bumpy as Ali must beat up her current live-in louse to restore the peace. The next time they meet, Stephanie has suffered a devastating workplace accident – she loses both legs when an Orca goes off-script.
At first it's difficult to see a functioning adult in these damaged humans. Ali does hoist Stephanie up on his broad back and out into the Mediterranean, where she becomes a less hapless creature. But they hardly warm to each other until one day Ali brazenly opines, with a goofy-looking smile, that he's "O.P.," or "operational" for recreational sex.
While doing the "horizontal mambo" doesn't collapse the invisible barriers separating these difficult creatures, what does seem to work is Stephanie's coming along to witness the horrendous maulings Ali calls fights. With the winner counting his bloodstained Euro notes and the loser affecting the stunned stare of a slaughterhouse-bound steer, Audiard makes it clear that these near-homicidal tussles are closer to the Roman definition of blood combat than anything on the cable TV schedule. Oddly, it's here that Stephanie finally finds her purpose. When Martial is banished for rigging local factories with illegal spy-cameras, Stephanie becomes Ali's promoter. When Ali's sister loses her cashier's job in the fallout from "camera-gate," Ali is banished: from the sunny south, from Stephanie's company, and from the job he's finally getting a handle on, being a passable Pop to a quiet, fearful boy (as Sam, young Armand Verdure displays a contorted body language, as if his torso instinctively leans away from the path of Ali's brutish strength).
Pro fighters often claim it's the punch you don't see coming that's the most devastating, and the filmmakers have found their almost heart-stopping version, which I won't spoil. Suffice it to say Ali is simultaneously wounded as a gladiator while healed as a dad/lover, a price he never suspected he'd be allowed to pay.
Rust and Bone's appealing cast should inoculate it from fears it's too bloody or grim a journey for sensitive souls. Marion Cotillard just keeps getting better as she heads towards the Meryl Streep wing of Oscar Valhalla. While in no way merely reprising his widely acclaimed portrayal of a tragically maimed ordinary guy of less-than-ordinary intelligence (Bullhead ), the Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts displays a Paul Newman-like knack for generating unexpected charisma from hard-to-define personality traits. Watch the arc of Ali's relationship with young Sam to see how a genius-level performer can conjure up intangible grace notes, ineffable qualities to make us pant to see him again. (Now playing.)