The plot of Rust and Bone is pure melodrama: a trainer of killer whales loses her legs in an accident and then begins a relationship with a bare-knuckle-boxing single father.
What could be more luridly contrived? Yet French director Jacques Audiard’s film is shot and acted in such a down-to-earth, naturalistic manner that the story and characters convince you of their emotional truth. Restrained rather than overblown, this is melodrama that isn’t melodramatic.
All the same, the story takes some swallowing. Thirtysomething bruiser Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) briefly encounters Marion Cottilard’s orca trainer Stéphanie when he rescues her from a brawl in the Antibes nightclub where he is working as a bouncer, having come from Belgium to the south of France with the five-year-old son he barely knows.
Months later, after her life-changing accident at the Antibes Marineworld, she calls him and their friendship begins. He takes her to the beach, encourages her to swim and after a while offers her no-strings sex when he is ‘OP’ or ‘operational’.
They make an unlikely pair but their coupling makes sense. Brusque, inarticulate Ali treats the emotionally numb Stéphanie with tenderness rather than pity, and, in return, when her appetite for life comes back she becomes the briskly efficient manager of his bouts as an illegal bare-knuckle fighter.
In other hands, Rust and Bone could have been mawkish and ridiculous. But Audiard, maker of the riveting The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, here working from a pair of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, has fashioned a slow-burning but touching romance.
The acting is terrific, too. Cotillard, an Oscar-winner for her role as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose, is even better here, and the relatively unknown Schoenaerts matches her. Expect Hollywood to come calling soon for him, as it has already done for her (see Inception, Midnight in Paris, and The Dark Knight Rises). Audiard will also probably pick up additional gongs to add to the best film award Rust and Bone collected at this year’s London Film Festival.
In cinemas from Friday 2nd November.
The stories on which the film is loosely based, ‘Rust and Bone’ and ‘Rocket Ride’, can be found in Rust and Bone, a collection of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, published by Picador.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.