A man and a woman meet but there’s nothing cute about it.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a rough sort, a bouncer at a nightclub in Antibes, a resort town on France’s southern coast. He comes to the rescue of Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an elegant brunette, when she is involved in an altercation at the club and her nose is bleeding.
Ali offers her a lift home. As he drives her to her apartment, Stephanie’s short skirt rides up and he covertly admires her long, shapely legs. The next time he sees her, months later, her legs are gone, amputated at mid-thigh with only short stumps remaining.
Ali and a now-disabled Stephanie’s slow-building romance and the path to self-discovery it provides for both of them is at the heart of "Rust and Bone," a moving and marvelously layered film by French director-co screenwriter Jacques Audiard. As with his earlier movies, including "A Prophet" (2009), "The Beat that My Heart Skipped" (2005) and "Read My Lips" (2001), the emotional wallop of this one creeps up on you and then lingers for days.
On the surface, the film (in French, with English subtitles) tells the affecting story of how two lonely people come to understand and depend on each other. But, digging deeper, it is also about living at the edges of an economy that has taken a beating and what that does to people, and about the steep cost of survival.
Ali and Stephanie are contrasting characters.
She had a profession she loved, training orca whales at a sea park. But then she loses her legs in a tragic accident involving the whales and finds herself jobless, depressed, in a wheel chair and living alone.
That’s when she reconnects with Ali. He’s a single father with a young son who bunks in the garage of his sister’s house. He takes work where he can get it and makes money on the side by taking part in organized kickboxing matches, reveling in the brutal physicality of the fights.
Stephanie is disabled physically and Ali is stunted emotionally, almost child-like. Over the course of "Rust and Bone," she must recover her physical and emotional equilibrium and he must grow up. How they help each to do that, gradually and in ways that feel entirely realistic despite sometimes bordering on melodrama, makes for an affecting and memorable journey.
Schoenaerts is impressive, showing the tenderness lurking beneath Ali’s blunt and muscled exterior. Cotillard, however, is luminescent, demonstrating yet again that she is an actress of enormous range and depth.
In playing Stephanie, she creates a fully dimensional character rather than a mere model of inspirational uplift. Watch for the dialogue-less scene in which Stephanie, still in her wheelchair but sparking to life for the first time post-accident, runs through the series of arm motions she used to use to direct the whales. It’s as moving a testament to the sheer joy of being alive, no matter the circumstances, as anything seen on screen this year.