RUST AND BONE (R) Director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet; The Beat That My Heart Skipped) wants to break our hearts. That he largely succeeds without resorting to cheap emotionalism or camp is remarkable considering that his latest movie, Rust and Bone, is a full-on melodrama. There's a delicate balancing act at play here, however, since Audiard is also a sensualist able to spark the otherwise naturalistic visual approach to the material with a bold image: warm sunlight streaming through palm fronds; blood flowing from a body floating in water; a knocked-out tooth resting on the cold pavement. Despite the old-fashioned melodramatic heart of the picture (it is a love story after all), the key to Rust and Bone's success is restraint and nuance.
Much of the burden to keep it all working smoothly is firmly on the lead actors, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. Alain (Schoenaerts) and his little boy (Armand Verdure) travel down south to the coast to stay with Alain's sister. Alain gets a job as a bouncer at a nightclub and meets Stéphanie (Cotillard), who has just been assaulted by another patron. Alain escorts Stéphanie home (unthinkingly insulting her along the way), but they don't expect to see each other again. Their paths cross later, however, after Stéphanie is involved in a horrible accident at the marine park where she works with killer whales. Stéphanie is severely depressed during her recuperation, but oddly attracted to Alain's brutish matter-of-fact demeanor. He doesn't judge or pity her. Their friendship blossoms into something more physical, but it's hardly conventional. Meanwhile, Alain starts kickboxing in underground tournaments, and Stéphanie is fascinated by his ability to find a sort of peace in violence, a strange solace in the act of delivering excruciating punishment to an opponent. The love story hits troubled water.
The best actors have fascinating faces, and Cotillard is riveting here, able to deliver much of the movie's emotional weight through her subtle expressions. Audiard has produced another great movie to his growing list of essential modern French cinema. When a late-developing subplot kicks in near the end, followed by another tragic event, Rust and Bone feels as if it's careening off the narrative rails. Trust in Audiard. The dramatic equilibrium returns, making for a satisfying conclusion. In addition, anyone who can pack an emotional wallop using banal, candied pop songs such as Katy Perry's "Firework" and The B-52s' "Love Shack" is some sort of genius.