People are messy. That's something that movies seldom understand. The mystery of why people behave the way that they do is something that eludes most films. Hell, the fact that there even IS a mystery is lost on most filmmakers, who are content with canned motivations and "turns out what happened was" back stories. People are sometimes broken and unpleasant and there's no solving that at the end of two hours. The characters in Rust and Bone (2012, directed by Jacques Audiard) are broken and unpleasant and human and inhabit a movie that refuses look away from this fact. It's a harrowing film.
Rust and Bone follows Alain, a shiftless father who moves from Belgium to the south of France with his young son, Sam. They're penniless and Alain is first seen gathering leftovers from the train they're on to feed his son. On arrival, he resorts to petty crime while they wait for a ride to his sister's house. Alain is a kickboxer and those skills come in handy as he finds work as a bouncer, and then as a security guard. While working as a bouncer, he meets Marie, who is on the receiving end of a scuffle at the club where he works. He takes her home because she's in no condition to drive and discovers that she works at a marine park, training killer whales. He leaves her his number. Marie, for her part, is in an unsatisfying relationship that ends dramatically when the scaffolding where she works collapses and one of the whales bites off her legs. During her rehab, she calls Alain, and they form a friendship. He takes her to the beach and doesn't look away from her when he sees the remains of her legs. Alain, for his part, has fallen in with Martial, a shady security consultant who illegally spies on employees for management and arranges black market MMA fights on the side. Alain likes to fight, so he starts fighting for Martial. Marie comes along. They're forming a close relationship even though they're not quite lovers. They have sex, but it's impersonal. It grows to be personal for Marie, whose self image has been shattered by her accident. Unfortunately for Alain, Martial is caught out by the workers he's spying on, and has to lay low. To Alain's sorrow, one of the employees fired for impropriety based on Martial's footage is Alain's sister, who throws Alain out of her house. Alain, for his part, shucks his responsibilities and heads out for parts unknown...
Alain, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, is nobody's idea of a screen hero. He's irresponsible, a neglectful, even abusive parent, he's not above petty crime. The movie shows all of this, warts and all, but it doesn't judge him. That lack of judgement is what permits the movie to grant Alain occasional moments of grace. The scenes between Alain and Marie show his qualities and his shortcomings in stark relief, sometimes in the same instance. Marie is not Alain's savior, or vice versa. They don't magically cause the other to heal from whatever traumas they're suffering. These are people who carry those traumas with them always, just below the surface. This is doubly true of Marie, who has a very visible trauma. She's not noble in her suffering. She's a woman in pain and she lashes out. But even before she loses her legs, there's something absent in her life. Her home life with her boyfriend gets only a cursory glance, but that glance illuminates a hollow relationship. She's looking for something more, even if she doesn't know what it is. Having no legs only makes that harder for her. Alain, for his part, has a horrible trauma awaiting him at the end of the movie, too, and the damage that does finds Alain looking for the same kinds of things Marie is looking for. The movie is ambiguous as to whether either of them find it in the end. This is, as I've mentioned, a film about messy human relationships that pursue their own logics rather than the pat narratives of movie romances or of noble people overcoming horrible odds. Neither Alain or Marie is ever particularly likeable, but the movie's close attention to them makes them at least comprehensible and recognizable.
I almost hesitate to mention that this is a special effects movie. I mean, this is no one's idea of a spectacle, but this is a film that takes full advantage of the state of the art in digital effects. Its use is largely invisible because the effects here are primarily subtractive. The removal of Marion Cotillard's legs and their replacement with robotic prosthesis is the stuff of science fiction, but we live in a science fiction world anymore so it all seems natural. The film gives this a sly nod when Alain calls Marie "Robocop" at one point. She is, by any definition of the word, a cyborg, and if this film had been made forty years ago, its futurism would have been astonishing. The content here might have been fertile ground for a David Cronenberg film back in the day. It has the elements: flesh and technology, identity through sexuality, you name it. These days, it's all commonplace, just so much background noise for a film that looks at how people in the here and now live. This is like a Cronenberg film in one other respect: it's a film about the fragility and mutability of our bodies, and in this regard, it's an almost purely existential movie. It's an areligious film, though I would stop short of calling it an atheist film. Spirituality doesn't enter into it at all. This is about the limits and needs of the flesh, the brittleness of bones, the unbearable pains of mere being.
Matthias Schoenaerts is good as Alain. He gets the slacker attitude that motivates him and is good at the more physical demands of the film. Given that the film is primarily about him, it's surprising that he's second-billed, but when you have Marion Cotillard opposite, that's bound to happen. Cotillard, for her part, burnishes her growing reputation as one of the finest actors in the world. It's not a showy performance, special effects not withstanding. Most of her character is internalized. She's good at showing the rage and hurt and emptiness behind Marie's eyes, and when she starts to come back to life in the last act of the movie, it's profoundly cathartic. This is all down to her performance. She gets the movies best scene, too, when having returned to the water park for a visit, she confronts a whale from the other side of an aquarium glass, then begins to play with the whale in the way that she used to when she was abled. It's a haunting image, the whale ghostly in the water and Cotillard shot from behind, where the entire emotional content of the scene is played without seeing her face.
This is an impressionistic movie, full of splintered images. This is on full display in the accident where Marie loses her legs, shot from below the water and clouded by debris. It doesn't show the whale biting her legs or the agony afterward. This isn't a horror movie and it's not interested in that kind of shock. The scene is poetic and sad none the less. The fight scenes later in the movie are brutal. Sometimes filmed from a distance, from Marie's point of view, where what's happening isn't clear, sometimes filmed from Alain's point of view, where the film turns into a riot of brief, glancing blows. As Alain fights, the film either slows down or speeds up depending on whether or not he's in the moment. These scenes are a stark contrast to the sex scenes between Alain and Marie, which are frank and reportorial. The movie shows us the details of Marie's private life and it's in part about watching a woman with no legs have sex or sit on the toilet or swim, because these are universal activities regardless of whether one is able or not. I doubt an American film would have the nerve to film what Audiard films, but Americans have always been disconnected from our bodies in one way or another. This film, by contrast, rubs the audience's nose in Marie's essential humanity. There's a scene late in the movie where she heads out to the bar with her fight club buddies, Alain has flown the coop with some blond barfly, and a man starts chatting her up. At this point, we've seen Marie's needs and wants, so when this guy realizes that she has no legs and starts backpedaling, it's kind of shaming. Not just for the guy in the bar, but for the audience, too. It's a hard scene to watch. A lot of this movie is hard to watch. It's not opposed to making the audience feel as unhappy as its characters. Maybe that's the key that separates this from a film like The Intouchables, which was intent on touchy feely emotions of uplift and optimism. This film just points the camera and lets the audience themselves decide how to feel about these characters without painting them as noble or heroic. They're just people, and that's enough.