Why ‘Rust and Bone’ could be the perfect date movie (Virtually 0% spoilers)

3 Nov

Remember those European, art-house films of the late ’80s and early ’90s in which two unusual characters get together and form a quirky, unpredictable relationship? You know the sort of film I’m talking about. A Parisian sausage-maker called Claude meets a Polish burlesque performer called Nino, and together they embark on a road trip to deliver an urn containing Claude’s mother’s ashes to the village where she was born. Along the way they have surprisingly explicit sex, and meet all manner of loveable eccentrics.

Each and every of them played by Dominique Pinon.

Well, on paper Jacques Audiard’s new film Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os) is exactly that kind of film, being the story of how Ali, a Belgian bare-knuckle brawler (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie, a disabled orca trainer (Marion Cotillard) form a quirky, unpredictable relationship and… well… you get the idea. Except, surprisingly this really isn’t that sort of film at all.

If anything, I’d say Rust and Bone is the perfect date movie. And I don’t mean the perfect date movie for the kind of people who sit through 24 hour Jean-Luc Godard marathons or snort derisively whenever anyone says the word “Hollywood”. Rust and Bone is, at its heart, a melodrama. In the wrong hands, it could have ended up as something mawkish and cloyingly sentimental.

Or arch and self-consciously hip.

It’s neither of those things, and it probably helps that Audiard takes it all so deadly seriously, which isn’t to say it’s a two hour misery-fest. Far from it. This is Audiard’s eighth movie (his last was the brilliant A Prophet), so he knows how to handle light and shade, and there’s plenty of subtle, touching humour along the way. Much to my surprise (I’d been expecting something much colder, and bleaker) it’s also an intensely romantic film; though, like tough guy Ali, it doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve.

I find myself wondering what a mainstream US production of this story (it’s based on a book by Canadian author Craig Davidson) would have looked and felt like, and can’t help but think it would have been dreadful; a kind of noxious mash-up of Free Willy, The Champ and Sleepless in Seattle.

Could happen.

For one thing, it’s unlikely a large US studio would have allowed the characters to remain quite so flawed. From the start, Ali is unrepentantly savage, happy to threaten even his sister and his own son with physical violence. His attitude towards women is rooted somewhere in the Dark Ages, and his idea of foreplay doesn’t go much further than taking his socks off before sex. Though her background is vague – violent boyfriends or partners are alluded to, and the first time they meet, Ali tells her she’s dressed “like a whore” – Stéphanie is easily as complex and as flawed as he is. When she sees Ali fight for the first time we’re given the idea that, though not necessarily turned on by his violence, she is fascinated by it. Is Ali a surrogate for the orcas she once worked with; attractive, perhaps, but also dangerous? Fortunately, Audiard hints at this without clobbering us over the head with it, unlike just about every other quasi-symbolic use of an animal in a film ever.

“What’s that, horsey? You’re the living, breathing symbol of my indomitable human spirit?”

That isn’t to say the story lacks redemption. If anything, redemption is one of its main themes. Though he remains a violent man throughout, Ali is clearly transformed, maybe even softened, both by the experience of having to care for his young son and his relationship with Stéphanie, and Stéphanie is rebuilt, both physically and emotionally; emerging as a far stronger character in the last reel than she is in the first.

So… Why would Rust and Bone make a great date movie? Well, as I said, it’s intensely romantic. And not in the trite way that a film like, say, Titanic is romantic. 

“Oh, Jack… I’m engaged to a ridiculous sneering cad straight out of a silent movie, but you seem a decent enough guy. I think I love you.”

Rust and Bone is full of genuine, unresolved emotion. It’s characters are treated like grownups, however inarticulate they may be, not like emotional toddlers capable of making only those choices that serve the plot.

Fortunately, if you’re not the one on the date who likes all the lovey-dovey romance-type-stuff, one thread of the plot is largely about  fighting, and the fight scenes here are more brutally convincing than just about anything since Raging Bull. One of the biggest problems with boxing scenes in movies is that actors aren’t athletes. Very few actors can run convincingly, let alone box. Look at The Fighter. A great (and underrated) performance by Mark Wahlberg, but in the ring he moves around with all the grace and agility of a JCB.

<BEEP>… <BEEP>… VEHICLE REVERSING… <BEEP>… <BEEP>…

With excellent direction from Audiard, a convincingly physical performance from Schoenaerts, and Oscar-worthy editing by Juliette Welfling, the fight scenes in Rust and Bone are breathtaking, with a great – and often bloody – eye for detail. (The extreme close-up of a dislodged tooth spinning on the ground will stay with me for some time.)

But it would be churlish to pretend that this is anything other than Marion Cotillard’s movie. Since winning the Best Actress Oscar for La Vie en Rose, Cotillard has made regular appearances in US films, but like many European actors who’ve “crossed over” she hasn’t really been given an English-speaking role worthy of her. Christopher Nolan in particular seems keen, having cast her in both Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, but to date has given her two disappointingly underwritten parts, and her story thread in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion felt almost like a hastily-written afterthought. In Rust and Bone she shines, playing her character’s traumatic – and traumatising – story arc with utter conviction. Seriously, if somebody can make a Katy Perry song not only poignant and moving but positively heartbreaking, and for all the right reasons, they pretty much deserve every award going.

What’s more, it’s the Katy Perry song where fireworks come out of her tits.

Rust and Bone is a melodrama, there’s no escaping that. Like its characters, it seesaws between emotional extremes, but it does so with so much control, and so much maturity, that it keeps you hooked, never guessing quite where the story will go next. So go see it – whether you’re on a date or not – before the inevitable Channing Tatum/Jennifer Lawrence remake.

Rust and Bone is in cinemas now.

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One Response to “Why ‘Rust and Bone’ could be the perfect date movie (Virtually 0% spoilers)”

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  1. The Best of 2012 « A Forest of Beasts - December 29, 2012

    […] already written about this movie, but if forced to pick one standout film from 2012, this comes barging its way to the front of the […]

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