Rust and Bone opens with a man and a little boy hitchhiking, then on a train scavenging food from left-behind scraps. This is Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his young son who are leaving Belgium and the boy’s mom behind for some sort of better life in the south of France, landing in Antibes at Ali’s sister’s house. They may be on the Cote d’Azure, but the neighborhood is strictly blue collar, and Ali’s sister, a cashier, soon gets him a job as a bouncer at a nice nightclub, thanks to his former life as a boxer. It is here he meets Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) when he breaks up a fight she’s started and ends up driving her home. But it goes no further, since her boyfriend is waiting there. Nevertheless, Ali leaves his number just in case she needs anything.
And then one day she does need something. Stéphanie is a trainer of orcas at a Sea World-ish park and in a tragic accident during the show she loses both of her legs. Alone and angry and lost, she calls Ali and a somewhat platonic friendship evolves, which turns into a friends-with-benefits relationship. Along the way she also becomes his manager, as he enters a series of bloody street fights to make some extra cash. It is not your usual romantic story plot. It’s kind of a gritty version of Silver Linings Playbook , again with two broken people who help each other out and end up in realizing they are the right fit. Stéphanie reaches out to Ali because he’s as emotionally detached as she is and treats her without pity. He tries to keep things on a surface level, but ultimately the two of them cannot fail to recognize how deep a bond they’ve formed.
There is really nothing sweet or predictable about this story. It is gritty and realistic, and the characters are struggling with themselves as much as with one another. Director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) who co-wrote the script has a wonderful feel for silences that let the actors convey more that they ever could with dialogue. He is fortunate to have two leads who are as capable as Cotillard and Schoenaerts. She’s already won an Academy Award for La Vie en Rose and is at the top of a lot of lists for this performance. He starred in last year’s Oscar nominated Bullhead. (It is on my list now.) I would recommend Rust and Bone for their performances alone, but fortunately the script is up to the same level. It is engaging, surprising and adult, and very European in feel, which is great for me. It is not about things being black and white, but about the shades of gray that make life interesting. It is one of the best films I’ve seen lately.