Ali (Matthias Schoenearts) is always OP. OP is short for operational, which in Stephanie’s (Marion Cotillard) terms means, if she’s ever looking for sex, he’s available. But clearly if this relationship is going to survive, Ali needs to be more than just functioning.
“Rust and Bone” is a film about incomplete people. They’re emotionally damaged and physically broken, and they need each other to mend. It’s a lush, powerful French romance recognizing that for as much as we love, we’re not always all there.
It begins by introducing us to Ali and his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure), both traveling without much money or a job to finally reach Ali’s sister Louise (Celine Sailette). He’s had to resort to theft and train hopping to feed his son, and the abrupt editing provides us with punctuated moments of fatherly care. He soon gets a job as a bouncer and meets Stephanie when she’s being harassed at his club.
Stephanie is a trainer at a SeaWorld in France, working with the killer whales in the stadium shows, but after a horrible accident in a scene so riveting you can hear a pin drop in the audience, both of her legs have to be amputated.
Director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) handles this realization beautifully. It’s a long shot of Stephanie’s lonely hospital room, looking in from a door at a bed that looks as though something is missing from beneath the covers. She pulls back her blanket and her legs have disappeared, which is especially impressive considering the actress, the lovely Marion Cotillard, has legs that go on forever. They’ve been digitally removed, and Cotillard is miraculously convincing as a person hampered by this new disability.
For a while she seems lost in time and beyond help, the editing drifting slowly as she looks on emptily. Months pass and she calls Ali out of the blue to help her around. The two form a mutual bond built on friendship first, then sex, but it’s clear each needs the other more than they let on.
Schoenaerts gives a wonderfully unsentimental performance. Training as a kick boxer and participating in vicious back alley brawls for money, he’s intensely unpredictable. His personality reflects the movie’s tone. He’s harsh, ambiguous and abrasive, but he has a sense of humor, heart and energy. Stephanie goes through a rebirth of sorts when she’s dropped into the water to swim for the first time since she lost her legs, but it’s Ali who helps pull her out, showing the harried fatherly care of a person who doesn’t have any real responsibility to care for this human being, but feels obligated all the same.
“Rust and Bone” is cinematically stunning, often feeling like the visual tone poem “The Deep Blue Sea” tried to be. There’s a beautiful shot of Cotillard touching the side of an aquarium and being met by the nose of a killer whale, a perfectly elegant and symbolic statement about two unlikely beings forming a bond.
But through the use of pop songs and a grizzled, handheld cam in other moments, “Rust and Bone” is more grounded than some of the art house fare you could compare it to. Stephanie is occasionally surly and quick to lose her temper, and Ali is a deadbeat father who sleeps around and takes shady jobs. Both of these people are far from perfect, and although they both are mending physically, Stephanie with prosthetic legs and Ali in the gym, they still have a lot of mental growing to do.