Modern Masterpiece: Rust and Bone

by Rebecca Wynne-Walsh

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Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone can be considered a masterpiece of filmmaking on so many levels. It artfully presents itself as a romance, a family drama, a depiction of the struggles of the working class, and even an animal rights piece. For a film that holds its finger in so many pies however, it never loses grounding or focus. That is because this is a film with a palpable beating heart at its core, one that guides the action of the entire narrative even as we move between themes, times and characters. I would not class Rust and Bone as a straightforward “Romance” it is more suited to definition as an in-depth character study over the course of which two people happen to fall in love. In its search for heartfelt humanity rather than frivolous romance this modern masterpiece presents relatable and realistic characters. The audience is begged to invest in not only the lead characters but the peripheral ones too, as we are invited on a journey of relationships, linked ultimately by love.

We meet Ali first, played brilliantly by the massively underrated Matthias Schoenaerts. His appearance is hyper-masculine, even intimidating. This is why it is so jarring when we see him so willingly relinquishing his dignity scavenging for food on the train. He is first and foremost a father and while his head is not always in it, his heart is. He and his young son Sam have fallen into a dire financial situation and this proud father will do whatever necessary to see his son fed. Stéphanie we meet in a very different situation as she is involved in a drunken brawl in a nightclub. It is uncomfortable to see Stéphanie, played by the cinematic goddess that is Marion Cotillard, in such a seedy role. Audiard undercuts expectations again when it is revealed that Stéphanie holds the unconventional career of an orca trainer at Marineland in Antibes.

Katy Perry’s “Firework” plays over Stéphanie‘s orca show. A song that would fit neatly into a standard rom-com is markedly out of place given the pensive tone of this film. And yet, the very song that would add to the Hollywood fantasy of the rom-com here acts an agent of realism, given that it is in fact a song that is used in Marineland. Reality bites hard in this sequence, as a whale attacks Stéphanie. As mentioned, this film has its finger in a lot of pies. It is not explicitly focussed on animal advocacy, but it is an elegantly handled peripheral concern. This concern is timely in terms of the burgeoning activism surrounding the captivity of orca whales at this time – SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau having died in 2010, the investigations into her death were on-going in 2012, the year of Rust and Bone’s release. Furthermore, Cotillard has openly expressed her opposition to such whale shows as a dedicated environmental activist and spokeswoman for Greenpeace. In this way Rust and Bone intertextually deals with this problematic element of its diegesis.

The understated romance that develops between Rust and Bone’s central characters, Stéphanie and Ali, stems from a place of friendship, support and real understanding rather than the perhaps more commercial motivation of physical attraction. Audiard presents a film about seeing people for who they are underneath their skins and, at times, underneath their actions. The viewer is placed in a subtly privileged, almost omniscient position. Able to witness characters at their best and worst. We are objectively shown the characters undermining themselves. For example when Ali insists in his job interview that he does not smoke, later we see him smoking casually with a co-worker but this incident is never addressed further. It is unclear if Ali lied about smoking to get the job, or if he simply took it up after he started. Audiard leaves his audience to form their own opinion of the lead character, the director paints half the picture but expects the viewer to finish it. Herein lies the magic of Rust and Bone.

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Seeing these people lie to each other, and indeed themselves, surprisingly serves to make them more likeable, or if anything more relatable. Audiard recognises it is only in displaying their flaws that he can shine a light on the humanity of these characters. This brings a level of realism to the characters that makes them all the more believable. Although it makes a point of showing the character's shortcomings, Rust and Bone does not attempt to suggest that these problems are there to be fixed, they merely exist within the film’s universe. These hopelessly flawed people are not to be seen as heroes, simply connected individuals struggling to make the best life they can for themselves and those they love – in that order, this is the inherent flaw that Stéphanie and Ali are forced to overcome.

As the title suggests, Audiard presents a film of dualities, of doubles, of two halves of a whole. The central pair undoubtedly complete each other, refreshingly however, this fact is never exaggerated or underlined, it is simply a natural point of arrival.

Rust and Bone denies its viewer the traditional climactic union of its central pair. In the words of the great William Holden, we are never allowed to see “two highly paid heads come together for that ultimate, final, and inevitable, studio-rent paying, theatre-filling, popcorn-selling, kiss”. Stéphanie never runs into Ali’s arms amidst a marvellous rain storm like Audrey Hepburn, nor does Ryan Reynolds save her from deportation by asking her to marry him, she doesn’t even get to declare herself “just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her”. When Ali finally says those all-important three little words, it is at the lowest, saddest point in the entire film, as his son struggles out of his coma. Stéphanie has called Ali to ask only about Sam but, overwhelmed with emotion, Ali begs her not to hang up. We hear his tear-filled “I love you” uttered over a black screen and we are not granted the luxury of hearing Stéphanie’s response. Here Audiard separates this modern masterpiece from its Hollywood parallels, bringing the romantic journey to the brink but refusing to hold the audience’s hand all the way to the emotional finish line.

This being the case, Audiard’s ending still does not deny us our sentimentality. He allows us a brief window into the happiness his characters find. Ali finds success in his boxing, Stéphanie finds new purpose as a member of the family, and Sam is finally safe. With this sequence Rust and Bone cements itself as a perfect blend of the values of both art and commercial cinemas. Audiard leads his audience to the happy ending they so long for, he simply takes a different route, dodging some of the expected landmarks so as to present a film that is as surprising as it is reliable.