A boxer knows how to get back up when knocked down. So when life spins out for French bare-knuckle fighter Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), he spends his last euros on a train out of town, his 5-year-old son in tow. It’s a responsibility this sullen brute of a man barely knows how to deal with, but he does his best, crashing at his sister’s garage in the seaside town of Antibes and finding work as a bouncer at a local nightclub.
One night he helps (and hits on) a young woman, Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), who’s been knocked flat in a fight. The first glimpse we get of her is her long bare legs as she lies on the ground. Take a good look: They won’t be there for long. Shortly after their brief meeting, Stéphanie — an aquarium trainer of orca whales — has both legs amputated below the knee after a horrific accident.
She despairs. Her career is gone, as is her less-than-committed boyfriend. For reasons she’s not even sure of, she calls Ali. He meets her for coffee, and in his gruff, take-it-or-leave-it way, asks her: “You wanna go swimming?” Stéphanie thinks he’s crazy, but he just shrugs and heads down to the beach.
Maybe it’s the sight of him on the sand, back muscles rippling; maybe it’s the allure of being back in her element, the water; maybe she’s just sick of her limitations. But Stéph calls him back. And in a crazy romantic scene, he carries her tenderly into the water, gently lowering her in as she floats and then realizes, like a miracle, that she can still swim. Cotillard’s performance up to that point has been so gripping, and we’ve felt her trauma so deeply, that this moment where the life starts streaming back into her is simply cinema at its most transcendent.
This would be the triumphant final scene for many a filmmaker, but director Jacques Audiard understands that people are never so simple. As Stéphanie starts to heal, Ali goes further into self-abasement, getting beaten bloody in underground street fights for money. Their friendship turns sexual, with resulting complications. Ali can’t seem to take responsibility for anything, least of all his son, as he sleeps around and gets involved with a barely legal employer.
The brilliance of Audiard’s style is that he never spells everything out. An American film, no doubt, would have Ali give a big speech (with one tear shed) as he explains how it was his mother leaving him as a child, or some such “issue,” that explains his fear of commitment. Audiard, however, never gives us Ali’s back story, such as what happened to the mother of his son or why he had to flee to Antibes. All we know — all we need to know, really — is that the guy is prone to pulling a runner when things aren’t going well. So just like Stéphanie, we watch him, looking for clues. It’s a technique that pulls the viewer into a deeper, more intimate relationship with the film’s characters.
Movies about the disabled can often be politically correct and glibly feel-good. “Rust and Bone” is definitely not one of those movies: Cotillard’s amputee finds her joie de vivre return via some good hard sex, and the moment in the film where you know she’s really her old self once again is when, drunk and disorderly, she manages to get herself thrown out of a nightclub. And really, this isn’t a film about disability — it’s about these two people, and how they learn what it means to really need someone.