He loves to catch his characters up in urgent moments, to see how they react.
Fresh off his powerful gangster film “A Prophet,” the French filmmaker hits audiences again with another strong, fully realized film, “Rust and Bone,” which competed at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“Rust and Bone” is a love story. Maybe better to call it a tough love story.
Its characters get introduced without preamble. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) finds himself with a 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). The background is murky but mom appears to have gotten caught using the son in the transportation of drugs.
Whatever the case, the man is stuck with the boy. He doesn’t act like this is a great burden but he doesn’t seem all that thrilled about it either. He’s not, as time will tell, a responsible father.
Father and son train down to the Riviera and get taken in without fuss but without affection either by Ali’s sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), a supermarket cashier who lives with her trucker-husband in Mediterranean town of Antibes.
He takes her home where, since he hurt himself punching the jerk bothering her, she lets him come in to ice down his hand. Stephanie’s live-in guy doesn’t much appreciate his presence, but isn’t about to challenge a guy like Ali in any serious way.
Ali even leaves his phone number. So right away you see that these are two of a kind — physically attractive people who treat sex as recreation and not an emotional thing.
An average filmmaker could not doubt have taken it from there, making a perfectly okay movie about two people closed off from real intimacy finding true love.
Oh, Audiard gets there eventually but what an unpredictable route he takes.
Stephanie’s job is to train and perform with orca whales for tourists at the nearby Marineland. A short time later, a tragic accident in the tank causes her to lose both legs at the knee.
(We are all used to the amazing things CGI can do in movies but Cotillard’s amputated legs are unusually good. The effects plus the actress’ considerable skills make you thoroughly believe her as an amputee.)
After she recovers and moves into a flat equipped for the handicapped, she dials Ali’s phone number, an action Audiard doesn’t need to motivate. You immediately understand that she senses Ali might be able to help her without any pity or bother over her handicap.
The two become friends of sorts. He coaxes her out of her beachfront flat into the sun and surf, which greatly improves her mental health.
Meanwhile Ali gets involved in a couple of shady rackets, wiring work places for management spying and competing in illegal kickboxing fights down the coast.
Stephanie has no trouble getting Ali to take her to bed, to see how sex will work under the new circumstances. But he clearly sees this as all part of being a helpful pal and not any emotional commitment.
Enough plot. Suffice it to say, the fighting, child-rearing and Ali’s relations with his family and with Stephanie take these two down a rocky path.
Audiard and co-scenarist Thomas Bidegain base their film loosely on a short story collection by Canadian author Craig Davidson. Evidently, they married two separate stories about a bare-knuckle fighter with brittle bones and a killer whale trainer who gets his leg torn off. They changed the trainer to a female and play off the weakness of each — one physical and the other emotional.
Amazing to think of such a thing and amazing how well they pull this off.
Both characters use their bodies to earn money and both suffer extreme abuse. The film never comes down hard on this point, it’s just there.
There are no long, excruciating bouts for Ali to suffer through. Instead the fights are quick, briskly edited affairs and any damage and pain get captured in something simple such as a loose, bloody tooth rolling on the ground.
Same thing with Stephanie. Scenes of therapy and coping with new artificial limbs are kept to a minimum. Even the scenes of sex between her and Ali are shot so the mechanics are emphasized bereft of emotional content. She doesn’t even want him to kiss her.
The film ends in a melodramatic manner, that while satisfying seems like its one misstep. First of all, you see the crisis coming all too baldly. Then the outcome and how it impacts the Ali-Stephanie relationship is a little too pat for such a deeply sophisticated film.
But “Rust and Bone” has been such perfection getting to that point, one can overlook this very minor flaw. Its stars pull no punches with their characters, and Audiard in turn keeps them honest and true to themselves at all times.
Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, who also shot “A Prophet” and Audiard’s previous film, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” set this love story in a highly realistic world, one of supermarkets, flashy discos, makeshift back alley fight areas and crowded flats, yet finds ways to let the sunshine in, as it were.
Sun and sand have their impact as do the extreme physical duress suffered by these heroes. “Rust and Bone” may be the least romantic film of the season but it’s a real flesh-and-blood love story.
Opens: December 7, 2012 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Why Not Productions, Page 114, France 2 Cinema, Les Films du Fleuve, RTBF (Belgian Television), Lumiere, Lunanime
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Celine Sallette, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners, Jean-Michael Correia
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriters: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
Based on stories by: Craig Davidson
Producer: Martine Cassinelli
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Michel Barthélèmy
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Juliette Welfing
R rating, 122 minutes