For some years now, Jacques Audiard has been making some of the most powerful films to come out of France, building up a reputation that might one day match that his father, Michel, who is something of a legend. On some of the most beloved French films of the 1960s, Audiard père had that quintessentially French credit – “dialogue de”, which is distinct from “adaptation de” (presumably the screenwriter who provided the nuts and bolts of the story’s structure). Non-francophones may not be familiar with the films he worked on (titles include gangster comedies Les tontons flingueurs, Les Barbouzes and Ne nous fâchons pas) – ironically because the dialogue is too well written, so full of argot and idiom that it doesn’t travel well, and even fluent French speakers sometimes have a hard time keeping up with it.
Michel Audiard must have been a hard act to follow, and so was Jacques Audiard’s last film – A Prophet. I don’t think Rust and Bone reaches the impossibly high standard set by its predecessor. Which is not to say it’s not worth seeing; it’s well worth the ticket price for the two central performances alone, and there’s some truly beautiful stuff in here. But in screenplay terms, the structure is so broken-backed I ended up reading Craig Davidson’s book, to see if that had similar structural problems. Mild spoilers lie ahead…
In fact (something I hadn’t realised) it turned out to be a collection of short stories, linked by theme, if not by characters. Audiard and his co-writer, Thomas Bidegain, have mashed two of the stories together: Rust and Bone is about a bare-knuckle prize-fighter with ruined hands, while Rocket Ride is about an orca trainer who loses a leg in an accident at the sealife park where he works.
In the film, the story has been transposed from America to Antibes, in France. The male protagonist of Rocket Ride becomes Marion Cotillard, who loses both legs in the accident. The protagonist of the other story is a Belgian boxer played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who has a small son (in Davidson’s story the boy is his nephew).
When I wrote that the two stories had been “mashed together” I meant it. The film extracts one big set-piece from each story – the first is the sealife park accident, the second I’m not going to tell you about, though it’s in the book – and in neither case does the protagonist of the other story participate in, nor even witness the event. Cotillard and Schoenaerts embark on a physical relationship, but apart from this, the two storylines continue to run along different tracks – I kept waiting for them to merge properly, but they never really do.
I’m aware that perhaps this is the point – they’re two such different people, from such different backgrounds, that maybe they can’t ever be an orthodox couple in the socially acceptable sense. They have good sex – and this is very nicely filmed, impressionistic but not coy, perfectly conveying the characters’ physical bond. But the scenes with Schoenaerts’s son might as well have been in a different film for all the connection they have to Cotillard’s character.
But don’t watch Rust and Bone for the story; watch it for Audiard’s impressionistic flair – close-ups, shadows, textures – and for Cotillard and Schoenaerts. Cotillard you’ll know already – Schoenaerts you might not have known, but this film definitely puts him on the international map. I’d previously seen him in the Belgian thriller Loft, but it was his extraordinary performance in Rundskop (aka Bullhead) which made me sit up and take notice:
He is that rare combination of muscle and intelligence we’ve seen in, say, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull or Russell Crowe in Gladiator. He can do lunkhead, and he can do sensitive (sometimes both at once) and either way, you can’t take your eyes off him. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
A couple of last observations about Rust and Bone: Alexandre Desplat, fast turning into one of my favourite film composers, provided the soundtrack, with guest appearances from John Cooper Clarke’s Chickentown and The B52s’ Love Shack. And the letter spacing in the end credits is so awful it has to be deliberate.
You may also be interested in:
- Gilbey on Film: Rust belt (newstatesman.com)
- London film festival gives top prize to Rust and Bone (guardian.co.uk)
- Jacques Audiard: ‘My work is like rolling thunder’ (guardian.co.uk)