To the core and back

Marion Cotillard is at her best in French/Belgian drama

Rust and Bone
Ends tonight, Jan. 31. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

This prize-winning French/Belgian drama from Jacques Audiard (The Prophet) has an outstanding performance from Marion Cotillard (Oscar-winner for La Vie en Rose) in it, but what makes it particularly dazzling is its daring and electrifying combination of conflicting qualities.

Both ferociously physical and emotionally delicate, it is a surprisingly dynamic mélange of domestic melodrama, sidelong love story, and scattershot social document.

It’s got bare-knuckle kickboxing, orca choreography, a 5-year-old kid who’s very much “at risk,” and a double amputee fighting her way back to something like a full range of the very vigorous physical activity to which she was previously accustomed.

While there’s plenty of opportunity for melodramatic excess in all that, Audiard’s directorial approach—rough-edged and elliptical—gives the brutal and lurid aspects of the tale their due without ever letting them overwhelm the action—or the audience. Sensationalism is underplayed, and in its place we get an evolving array of glimpsed insights into vital undercurrents in the characters’ lives—their contradictions, potentials, unspoken passions, etc.

Cotillard plays Stephanie, the lead whale trainer at a SeaWorld-like exhibit in the south of France. After losing her legs in a work-related incident, she seeks out the thuggish Belgian bouncer (Matthias Schoenaerts) who had once rescued her from a late-night brawl at a dance club. The picture actually begins with the Belgian, nicknamed “Ali,” taking his small son, Sam (Armand Verdure), away from his drug-addicted mom and fleeing south to Antibes where they will live with Ali’s hard-pressed sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero). He finds work there, as a security guard and as kickboxer.

As its title perhaps suggests, Rust and Bone seems concerned above all with the dilemmas of passionately fleshy humanity in a world that is increasingly mechanized and metallic. And its climactic paradox arrives at about the time that we see that the woman with metal bones in her prosthetic legs might be a more complete human being than the athletically resourceful guy who’s still got all of his parts. And that too could change.