In ‘Rust and Bone,’ Marion Cotillard provides the center for an overextended narrative

'Rust and Bone' is out now. (Sony Pictures Classics)
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There’s a certain frustration to roughing out the story of Rust and Bone, say to a couple of interested friends over drinks.

See what I mean: a Belgian drifter with a side-gig in extreme fighting meets a sexy whale trainer who loses her legs in an accident; healing sex, a lucrative fight career, and perfectly deployed pop songs ensue. There’s the element of improbability, modish detail; the promise, worst of all, of sentimental uplift disguised for your comfort in art film rags.

Here though, beyond the pinch of reducing any great film to its story points, is the double injustice of doing so when the film concerns two characters pitching themselves against some pretty brutal narrative limits.

So while I want to do right by Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), two recognizable people in extreme situations, I find myself describing what might pass, with a few tweaks, as a punked-out fairy tale. Which is to say I am describing a Jacques Audiard movie. Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet) pours classic themes into less familiar shapes, often using a heightened style to elide his weak points, which tend to involve overly figurative characters and overdetermined plot. He shrinks the big stories he likes to tell down to the scale in which he likes to tell them, with some elements making the transition better preserved than others. The result is a disproportional quality that has come to feel fundamental to Audiard’s ambitious but persistently uneven work.

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The opening scenes of Rust and Bone establish the fringe existence of Ali and his young son Sam (Armand Verdure, a sweetly poised, watchful presence). The pair make a hobo’s journey from Belgium to Antibes, where they are taken in by Ali’s sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), who shows Sam more care in a few quick organizational strokes than his self-involved father has managed at a much longer stretch. Ali, tall, broad, and narrow-eyed, begins working the door at a decadent nightclub, where he meets Stéphanie, small, serious, and coldly self-possessed.

I say “meets” but “crashes into” is closer: their bond is baptized in violence, specifically a brawl that bloodies them both. It’s unclear whether Stéphanie was the aggressor or the victim or some pissed up combination of the two; driving her home with less-than-gallant intentions, Ali observes that a skirt that short was asking for trouble. Audiard (who adapted the script with Thomas Bidegain from two stories in Canadian writer Craig Davidson’s collection of the same name) invites us to admire Stéphanie’s bare legs along with Ali, then share her disgust with his casual sexism. She takes his number anyway, an unflattering measure of her current, briefly glimpsed boyfriend.

Like the camera peering between them from the back seat on that drive home, we move between Stéphanie and Ali for the rest of the film. Focus shifts onto Stéphanie for a while, long enough to depict the marine park accident that cripples her. It’s a masterfully compact sequence that draws the sensory chaos of the show—pounding music, frenzied crowd, tensely choreographed SCUBA-clad trainers, giant L.E.D. screens, the warped grandeur of killer whales leaping in synchronized time—to a grimly organic end. In this moment of trauma and others, Audiard favors subjectivity over spectacle, sensing when a slight remove will actually bring us closer to an out-of-body experience. Two powerful images linger: Stéphanie framed from below, floating in an ink puff of blood; then held in a single, static long shot as she wakes alone in a hospital bed to find—slowly, unthinkably—that her legs are gone.

Ali, meanwhile, has taken a job as a security guard, and been drafted into a private fight club for extra cash. He seems to hate his son, who resembles him, and animals, who are filthy and undisciplined, but that’s as close as we get to an expressed psychology. Ali is all body and impulse, though his hands are cold, as Sam remarks more than once. He’s most animated when watching other men fight on YouTube, and most alive when other men are watching him pound and be pounded. Before her accident, she later admits, most of Stéphanie’s sexual excitement was bound up, briefly anyway, in watching and being watched, each new man a match flare in the dark.

Isolated in her recovery, Stéphanie reaches out to Ali, who will at least come when called. In their shared scenes—first depicting his fleeting, unfazed attention in the face of her need, then her enlivening interest in his fights, and finally his curt offer to oblige her with sexual servicing whenever he’s “operational,” like a train—Audiard blends the perspectives he has been alternating. We see them seeing each other, an effect that enhances the sense, at work in their separate scenes, of two subjectivities slowly knitting together.

Audiard never settles on a clear storyline, showing his characters to us the way they reveal themselves to each other, in fragments that here and there let in a rare blade of light. Stéphanie seeks to invest meaning in her connection with Ali; he will only gamble on the present moment. Ali accepts Stéphanie without comment, but then he accepts most things much the same—even, as a subplot involving the installation of union-busting security cameras at his sister’s workplace illustrates, if they work against the family interest. His is a sloppy morality, less selective than short-sighted: Ali has no plan, and has yet to understand that part of his attraction to organized fighting, paradoxically, is the momentary relief it offers from drift, casting him in a drama with a beginning, middle, and end.

Stéphanie, by contrast, is desperate to transcend the division of her life into before and after, to find a throughline within or without. Cotillard’s ability to telegraph staccato series and combinations of emotion in long, unbroken lines gives human complexity to what could have been a ruinously bathetic role. The actress’s raw beauty is more poignant for feeling wrapped around something hard at her center; at its most translucent here, it seems both a protection and a product of that hardness. That center stabilizes a story overextended with symbolic and dramatic freight. A last glimpse of Cotillard’s attenuated silhouette, following the punishing climax to Ali and Sam’s story, is as close as Rust and Bone gets to something whole.