Really, Jacques Audiard's emotionally devastating Rust and Bone is two films in one. At its core, it's an unlikely love story between two flawed, broken, battered people, pulled together by the same animalistic instincts that eventually tear them apart. Then there's the film that surrounds that film, an artful hodgepodge of visual symbolism and cinematic fluff. It's a delicate balancing act; boosted by his top-shelf cast, Audiard (known for 2009's A Prophet), achieves a unique symbiosis between preciousness and realist grit, even if the results are as frustrating as they are revelatory.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) isn't exactly a good guy. Living in poverty in northern France, the former kickboxing champion totes around his 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), like a heavy suitcase, stealing from pawn shops for petty cash and scurrying up dinner from public-transit trash. Ali and Sam move to Antibes, where Ali finds work as a bouncer and both find food and shelter with Ali's sister. As a parent, Ali is negligent at best. He often forgets to pick up Sam from school; when Sam tries to escape reality by mingling with his aunt's dogs in their filthy crate, Ali screams obscenities, strips his son naked, and sprays him off with a hose.
But even if Ali is cold, he offers a glimpse of hope. After breaking up a bar fight, he befriends a beautiful young whale trainer named Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). After a devastating accident at her marine park, Stephanie is left without legs; in desperation, she follows her instincts, calling Ali for company, though she seems unsure why. So begins a fractured, confusing relationship, filled with alternately tender and violent sex, nude swimming, and explosive jealousy, offset by scenes of heartbreaking child abuse and demented kickboxing. Indeed, Rust and Bone is a mess of loose ends and thematic threads. Juggling all of these plotlines, Audiard doesn't follow through on any as faithfully as they all deserve.
When Ali resumes his kickboxing career through illegal live-gambling fights, he sets off a ripple effect on everyone around him. For Sam, this means violence—in one devastating scene, Ali, disturbed by his son's crying, throws him like a ragdoll, clanging his head against a table. We see the quiet horror on Ali's face but we're never allowed inside his head. For Sam, his tears don't bring answers. Ali buys him a toy truck with his fight winnings, but Sam knows the gesture is empty. But Audiard rarely lets us explore these ripples: Instead of placing Ali's character under the microscope, allowing him to squirm and struggle with his fatherly failures, Audiard jumps to another in a slew of raw sex scenes. Ali deals with his demons through sex: helping Stephanie "rehabilitate" through a friends-with-benefits scenario that, for Stephanie, quickly becomes much more than physical. We know Ali is a kickboxer; we know he is a bad father; we know is violent but also tender, unfazed by his own debauchery, but also willing to spend an afternoon caring for a woman he barely knows. What we don't know is why.
On the other hand, Audiard approaches Stephanie's character with an artful delicacy that often approaches kitsch. In one scene, Stephanie returns to the marine park and confronts a whale she formerly trained, softly gesturing her hand signals through the giant tank glass. Another scene finds Stephanie reliving her glory days on her apartment rooftop, mimicking hand signals in her wheelchair to a soundtrack of Katy Perry's "Firework." Perhaps Audiard wants us to view these characters like whales: reacting purely to their instincts, following invisible commands they barely grasp. Rust and Bone works best on that level—in the primal sweep of Stephane Fontaine's cinematography, in the raw passion of its lead actors' mesmerizing performances.
The film's final third is both redemptive and rushed. Following a work mishap and family crisis, Ali flees for a kickboxing training camp—when confronted with a harrowing near-death experience, he breaks down in tears, finally realizing the gravity of his mistakes, finally owning up to the callousness of his actions. It's an emotional epiphany that works brilliantly onscreen—but that epiphany leaves a lot of puzzling questions in its wake.