Filmic depictions of triumph over adversity stories can tend to stray into mawkish territory, mistaking crass melodrama for genuine sentimentality. Thankfully, Jacques Audiard’s latest picture Rust and Bone (based loosely on a couple of short stories from a collection by Craig Davidson), mostly forgoes the saccharine in favour of the sincere, and, as a result, it tells an affecting story with dignity and warmth.
As the two protagonists, Marion Cotillard – playing Stéphanie, a trainer of killer whales whose legs are amputated after a freak accident – and Matthias Schoenaerts – as Ali, the rough-edged drifter who inadvertently tends to her internal wounds – are both excellent. Their relationship begins accidentally, when Ali escorts her out of a nightclub following a fracas, and drives her home. There is no reason for further contact, other than that Stéphanie, after her accident, feels alone, and needs somebody to comfort her. Her boyfriend, glimpsed in an early scene, vanishes from the film entirely, which is a sensibly non-hysterical way to convey it.
Ali works as an interesting counterpoint to Stéphanie’s wounded confidence, drawing her out of her shell simply by being himself: physical, honest and undemanding. But unbeknownst to Stéphanie, at least for a good portion of the film, she is being brought back into the world by a character who is also flawed, and whose penchant for street fighting raises an interesting parallel on what it means to damage one’s body, even if this isn’t explored in too much depth.
In its depiction of physical disability, the film is unflinching and sincere, and thanks to Audiard’s deft direction, allied with Cotillard’s beautifully real performance, doesn’t patronise or posture. It may overegg the pudding slightly at times – particularly during a couple of slightly out-of-place slow-mo fight scenes – but never to any significant detriment to the film’s effectiveness.
It has moments of visual poetry, too, and Alexandre Desplat’s gentle score complements the drama nicely. One scene, in which Stéphanie returns to the visit the aquarium after her accident, might have been cheesy, but actually provides a moment of genuine pathos. There’s humour, too, which counterbalances the serious subject matter nicely.
This is a very different film to Audiard’s most recent release – the impressive A Prophet – but it has a similar sense of maturity about it, and could well have acting awards aplenty heading its way in the coming months.