Foreign films do well in the United States in proportion to how successfully their captivating stories feel as close as next door - not foreign at all but intimate and familiar. French filmmaker Jacques Audiard does this with startling acuity in his new movie Rust and Bone, where Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) and Belgian star-in-the-making Matthias Schoenaerts ferociously embody lost souls bonded by their inner demons and outer damage.
The actors respectively play Stephanie and Alain, whose paths first cross outside a nightclub where she's drunk and itching for a fight and he's the dutiful bouncer. She's in a relationship that's not all that committed, he's the noncommittal type, and they make an impression upon each other, not unlike the way two puzzle pieces that don't fit together might, actually, if pushed with enough torque.
The push for Stephanie, who trains and performs with whales at a water park, manifests itself following a horrific work accident where she loses both legs at the knee. After months of healing within a self-imposed period of isolation, she recalls that vague, spark-like something that transpired between her and Alain the night they met and tracks him down. He's living with his tow-headed son and sister, making whatever money he can as a weekend bare-knuckle fighter.
What they share is an openness to each other's flaws. Even on afternoons at the beach, where her condition epitomizes vulnerability, he's unfazed by her disability and others' reactions to it. And unbeknownst to him, she's finding and then zeroing in on the empathy and humanity lurking somewhere beneath his chiseled torso and devil-may-care demeanor. When he invites her to one of his fights, it's seems evident there's been a swap; he has accepted her physical limitations and she the weighted timing behind his punches.
But when their relationship turns sexual, it confuses and complicates whatever they have or have had together. He becomes dismissive back at the same nightclub and treats her like he's treated other women in his life, as no more than a one-night stand. The pain on Cotillard's face reveals with brute force that the "specialness" which she thought endeared her to him doesn't make her special at all.
For all the drama and despair, the movie's not at all a downer because it's so skillfully made, wonderfully written (by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain), and nakedly acted. (And sometimes acted nakedly, which draws attention to the amazing digital effects that remove Cotillard's legs.) What also keeps the film aboil is its eclectic selection of music, from various Bon Iver tunes to The B-52s classic party anthem "Love Shack" to a visceral remix of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper" that is at once shockingly out of place and perfectly utilized.