To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one must have a heart of stone to watch Jacques Audiard's outrageous melodrama Rust and Bone without laughing.
Loosely adapted from two works in Craig Davidson's 2005 short story collection of the same name, Rust and Bone finds Audiard returning to the overdetermined characters and swift redemption of his last film, the bafflingly lauded A Prophet (2009). Where the earlier movie centered on the claustrophobic, same-sex environment of men behind bars, Rust and Bone encompasses man, woman, child — even animal — in peril, bleeding and healing in a sunny resort town in the Côte d'Azur or in a snow-blanketed compound in Alsace.
Co-written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (who also collaborated with the director on the script for A Prophet), Rust and Bone is as ludicrous as its plot synopsis suggests. As the film opens, beefy Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his towheaded, anemic-looking five-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), are traveling south to Antibes, to stay with Ali's grocery-clerk sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero). Father and child's penury is underscored by Ali's foraging of half-eaten sandwiches during their train trip; a short-fused, violent parent, he is at least a better guardian than Sam's never-seen mom, who used the tyke to smuggle drugs.
Ali's part-time job as a club bouncer leads to his meeting Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer who becomes a double amputee after a freak accident at the marine mammal park where she works. The calamity occurs during a routine with an orca, choreographed to Katy Perry's "Firework"; "shoot across the sky-y-y" is heard underwater as blood oozes from Stéphanie's shapely gams. Brutish Ali shows his gallantry, unfazed by Stéphanie's disability and carrying her in and out of the Mediterranean on his broad back. For her part, the former trainer of killer whales takes a keen interest in Ali's amateur ultimate-fighting bouts; just the sight of her hobbling on her prosthetic legs is enough to rally him to victory after a savage pummeling. The relationship between the class- and education-discordant duo deepens from friends to fuck buddies to manager-client to, in the closing scenes, an indissoluble, sanctified bond forged by yet another aqueous catastrophe that seems to have been lifted from the D.W. Griffith playbook.
Larded with so many silly setups — there are others I haven't even mentioned — Rust and Bone is populated with characters who can never break out of molds; they exist only to push the unwieldy story along. Prone to bestial rages, Schoenaerts's Ali isn't that much different from the hulk the actor played in Bullhead, released earlier this year. Thwacking his kid or rutting with a series of partners (moments during which his cell phone invariably rings; animal that he is, he always answers), Ali is defined solely by the impulses he can't control — until his inexplicable final-act resurrection as devoted protector.
After the initial amazement at the lower-stem-removing CGI trickery, the scenes of Cotillard, France's biggest crossover star in decades with greasy hair, an unwashed body, and legs that form stumps at the knees might strike the viewer as yet another transparent ploy for "seriousness." ("Does it stink in here? It's me who stinks," Stéphanie tells Ali when he first visits her new, wheelchair-friendly apartment.) The Gallic beauty's seemingly vanity-free performance requires not augmenting her body, as Charlize Theron did in Monster (a bulking up that led to a Best Actress Oscar in 2003), but diminishing it.
That the bodies of its leads (and even its secondary characters: Ali's sister is a stoop-shouldered, gray-faced lumpen) carry the narrative excess and outlandishness of Rust and Bone highlights just how much Audiard uses the corporeal as shorthand. Ali and Stéphanie evince little sense of interior lives or background; they are ciphers in service to shopworn ideas about suffering and deliverance — notions that scream as loudly and redundantly as the block-lettered tattoos Stéphanie has inked on each thigh, reading "gauche" and "droite." Audiard himself might have benefited from a simple reminder of left from right; his rudderless film confuses a pileup of preposterous, sentimental scenarios with genuine emotion.