Alain is a nightclub bouncer and doer of slightly shady odd jobs. Stéphanie is an orca trainer at a theme-park aquarium whose life is changed forever by a terrible accident. As romances go, they're not exactly a match made in heaven, and their relationship, as it slowly and cagily develops, is barely even romantic. It's more a pragmatic clinging together for creature comfort in the darkness of the ennui of miserable mortal existence than anything approaching a grand passion.
Not yer typical Hollywood flick, then, but perhaps a fairly French one ...
Its rather depressingly realistic approach to adult relationships is, perhaps ironically, the best reason to see Rust and Bone, as hard-edged a drama as you'll get at the multiplex even during Oscar season. The always watchable Marion Cotillard and handsome newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts are intriguingly grim and gritty from the opening moments of the film, when they meet in a way precisely the opposite of a Hollywood meet-cute — it's a meet-ugly, involving sexualized violence and domestic discomfort, and it mostly sets a tone for what's to come, as fate starts throwing personal disasters their way.
Yeah, life sucks, especially for the working poor, even in France (even if some Americans suffer under the delusion that the country is a socialist "paradise" for the less well-off). For here are unexpected looks at a side of France that we do not typically see on film. This is no dreamy tourist's fantasy but a peek into the rather wretched lives of the working class.
Hunger among the workers of France and their families is one narrative thread that stings. Alain's sister has been swiping expired food from the supermarket in which she works, a desperate ploy that backfires on her. Fat-cat employers going out of their way to find reasons to fire low-wage employees is another motif that bites. The unfairness of it all is outrageous, and the grittiness and the tragedy that accrue around Stéphanie and Alain reach a point beyond which it all gets laughably absurd.
And therein are borne the disappointments of the film. Director Jacques Audiard, in a less conventional but also less satisfying follow-up to his crime drama A Prophet (Un Prophète), cannot help but pile on the misery ... perhaps because he is adhering faithfully to the series of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson upon which this is based.
The overarching theme of "everyone is doing what they can to survive" gets extra wallops with motifs of endemic emotional depression driving mating strategies, muddled themes of social captivity shrinking personal options — in one iteration of that, Alain's young son, who has been traumatized by almost everything in life, likes to hide out in a doghouse — and ultimately one preposterous calamity too many.
It's too all-over-the-place, too intent on cramming as much wretchedness as possible into two hours. It's exhausting, and in no way is that even remotely plausible. Still, it is a bit of a surprise that both Cotillard and Schoenaerts were overlooked for Oscar nominations, except for the fact that the power of their performances are overwhelmed by the somewhat ridiculous soup they're forced to swim in.
Best thing about Rust and Bone? We're left with no doubt that Marion Cotillard is a goddess, doubly proven here when she can eschew glamour and still be divine.