Now six films into what is already an extraordinary career, Jacques Audiard must be recognised as one of the true poets of modern cinema. His is a visceral type of filmmaking that manages to be both cerebral and heartfelt. His films are slaps in the face, punches to the gut and the cinematic equivalent of a kiss so strong and ferocious it bleeds. Rust and Bone cements this reputation further – an unexpected and unusual love story that is raw and sometimes exasperating. On paper this film sounds risible, hackneyed and implausible. However, on film it is adrenalized and utterly alive – thanks in no small part to two of the most electrifying and physical performances of the year.
Almost all of Audiard’s films to date – particularly Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet – are genre works. He is not an oblique, distanced art house practitioner. Instead he works genre from the inside out, imbuing it with soul, swagger and sincerity. The searing A Prophet is both a prison movie and a complex mediation on faith and mortality. Overwhelmingly atmospheric, like all his films, it possesses a hammer-blow intensity. His leads are often the kind of people that Scorsese and Cassavetes made films about; physical, prone to violence, tough and tender.
In Rust and Bone, Matthias Schoenaerts is Ali – a bare-knuckle street fighter, impoverished and caring for a young son. Marion Cotillard is Stephanie, a trainer of performing orca whales. They meet when he gets a job as a bouncer working at a club she frequents. How they come together takes place unusually, slowly and painfully and may frustrate some viewers. Audiard doesn’t make any concessions as a writer to the usual hooks or beats expected of this kind of unlikely romance, although he finds gruff humour in the most unexpected places. Audiard is alive to the poverty of Ali’s existence, and unsparing in how it infects his whole being. He doesn’t prettify the relationship, which begins as a kind of deal. There’s no emotional fraudulence. He allows his characters to circle each other like animals , curious and hungry for affection – screenwriting attuned to the unexpected rhythms of actual human behaviour – and by doing so makes the film richer and more involving.
His regular cinematographer (Stephane Fontaine) is on masterful form here. This is a film shot with clarity, texture and grain. There are moments in Rust and Bone that quite simply electrify the soul because this is a director who, whatever he shoots – a fist fight or a fuck – gets up close and personal so you can smell and taste it.
Audiard’s musical choices are equally startling. There are two uses of Katy Perry’s Firework which are both thematically resonant and devastating. When a director can unlock the hidden emotional core in a Perry track and elevate it to a moment where tears are flowing freely, you know he’s onto something special.
Rust and Bone is preoccupied with the connectivity between souls that are numbed by pain and the inseparability of emotional joy from physical endeavour. For a film that relies on such raw physicality, Audiard could not have chosen his two performers more wisely. Schoenaerts is pretty much unknown right now and has the more difficult role in lots of ways – his character is so opaque. He tests our – and Stephanie’s – patience particularly when he takes a detour into criminality (a key theme with this director) Cotillard, in a role that calls for restraint and could easily slip into showboating and histrionics, is sublimely controlled, human and affecting. It’s a towering performance (aided by some magnificent, seamless technology).
This is not a perfect film, and in many ways its imperfections – ragged narrative, plot strands all over the place, final-hour melodramatics – are what make it so very human, odd, tender and affecting. In many ways this is a film only a Frenchman could make – at times its intensity is almost parodic. For these and other reasons this will not be a universally admired work. It will polarize viewers; for everyone who declares their amour for its peculiar charms there will be those denouncing it as pretentious merde. For me – j’adore – this truly is one of the great films of 2012.