Love and War, by David Bax

Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone is a showcase of bold filmmaking. In some scenes, there are things you likely haven’t seen in a film before. In other scenes, things are simply presented in a way you likely haven’t seen before. What Audiard overlooks, though, is the fact that boldness can’t really be an end in itself. It’s a tool and it’s one he fails to wield effectively.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali, a former boxer/kickboxer who has halfheartedly taken custody of his son from the boy’s junkie mother. Reduced to scrounging for food in the wastebaskets on the train, he and the boy move in with his sister and Ali finds work as a bouncer in a nightclub. One night, when a woman named Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) is injured during a barfight, he helps her clean up and drives her home. He’s mostly nice to her, if you ignore the fact that he calls her a whore, and leaves his number in case she needs anything else. Weeks later, when Stéphanie is gruesomely maimed at her job as a whale trainer, she calls Ali in despair. The rest of the film details their friendship, which is essentially miserable even when it’s happy.

If you become bored, as I did, with the film’s sweaty, desperate attempts to be outré, you can at least amuse yourself with a game of name-that-song. Hey, it’s Bon Iver! It’s Katy Perry! It’s Lykke Li! It’s Bruce Springsteen! And, in the film’s absolutely most laughable musical choice, it’s John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown”! Ali doesn’t strike me as a guy who has John Cooper Clarke on his iPod but, if he does, what a weird choice to listen to while jogging. That’s not the sort of consideration Audiard puts into his film, though. Like many of the choices he makes, the songs aren’t designed to complement the moment, only to call attention to themselves.

One would hope that, as with Robert Zemeckis’ recent Flight, the roughness would be smoothed by the spectacle of a captivating central performance. Sadly, neither Schoenaerts nor Cotillard detail their characters’ various afflictions with the engrossing immediacy of a Denzel Washington. Mostly, they just mumble and mope their way from scene to scene. In fact, two of the most uplifting scenes in the film owe their impact to a (likely CGI) whale and the aforementioned Katy Perry. When left to themselves, Ali and Stéphanie are simply unpleasant and not in the can’t-look-away manner on display in, say, Leaving Las Vegas.

Stéphanie may be the more memorable character because of the nature of her injury but the story belongs mostly to Ali’s. At times, Stéphanie’s role approaches that of queasy male wish fulfillment. She’s a helpless beauty who’s sexually outgoing but of limited experience and she has absolutely no other attachments apart from Ali. Most of her problems can be solved by a kind word or a fuck.

It would be dishonest, however, to give the impression that Rust and Bone has no moral or thematic weight to redeem it. Despite its pitiful attempts to shock the audience with violence and sex, it possesses a rather conservative worldview. What we witness is two characters who start out attempting to conduct their lives with a general absence of responsibility. They come to embody the sad and lonely meaninglessness of such an existence before trying to break out of it. What they (and we) learn is that responsibility does not come without consequences and you’ll always risk those consequences being negative. Perhaps that’s why they initially chose the unattached lives they were leading when first we met them. But there’s more reward, the film seems to be saying, in risking and surviving those negative consequences. Each one becomes a part of you, a scar you carry to remind you how to be better in the future.

Most of the film’s runtime is consumed by overblown silliness and attempts at impact too self-conscious to be effective, all of which is eye-rollingly dour. Despite the parade of pretty poutiness, however, things do come together respectably in a surprisingly hopeful resolution. The best that can be said is that I left the movie not disliking it as much as I’d assumed I would while it was happening.

Ambition in cinema is nothing to scoff at. Rust and Bone, however, never fully conveys that it has roots from which to grow. There’s no ambition without a starting point. Instead, there’s just a ceaseless feeling of disconnect. Audiard’s mistake was not realizing that in order to reach for the stars, you have to first have your feet on the ground.

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