Ali and Stéphanie meet briefly at the start of the film when, as throughout, he treats her with a mixture of kindness, (insensitive) honesty and straightforwardness – though don’t underestimate how unlikable he is for much of the film. After the accident, Stéphanie is lost, but manages to reach out for help by to turning to Ali. What evolves, somehow, is friendship and passion. So, why, and how, is it so good?
Audiard’s vision and technique should not be underestimated. Much of the film breathes a kind of expressionism. Key scenes are infused with perfect measures of sunlight or shade to give depth and emotional resonance to scenes and images. He mixes this with a healthy dose of naturalism, using a hand held camera to get us inside the small living spaces and follow the characters around the urban environments. Like most of the great directors, he knows how and when to use close ups and long takes (lingering on faces and images longer than any you would find in much mainstream genre cinema) to infuse the narrative with humanity and significance. Also, watch the “Making of” documentary to see how Audiard’s flair and vision is completely bound up with his collaborative way of making films. His team of people tackling difficult technical problems and aesthetic nuances are remarkable.
Audiard is one of the greats of modern European film-making along with Michael Haneke and Claire Denis (and yes possibly, probably, Ken Loach too). Of all of them Audiard is the populist and the one with greatest range – just look at those films: the quiet comedy of A Self-Made Hero (1996), the romance of Read My Lips (2001), the forlorn, angry The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), A Prophet (2009) and then Rust and Bone (2012). Whilst full of praise, (legendary) film critic David Thompson wonders if Audiard tries to be a little too entertaining and too often suffers from a mild case of sentimentality especially when trying to tie up endings. He’s probably right, but for most of their running time the films bruise you with their hard, uncomfortable truths, indelicate passion and lost souls. What’s more he elicits stunning, often extraordinary performances from his actors every time; or is it perhaps that, like Woody Allen, he has the uncanny knack of choosing his actors perfectly.
I almost think that Rust and Bone shouldn’t work and I know that for some, the last ten minutes will cast a sentimental shadow over what has gone before. BUT, Cotillard and Schoenaerts are brilliant and the film makes me want to believe in their characters and fills me with a kind of longing; that people learn from each other; that redemption is possible no matter how dully we inhabit our lives from time to time; that it’s possible to find a balance in the world so that straightforwardness wins out; that our drives toward superciliousness and being judgemental fade away, and that emotional honesty, between adults, can be refreshingly simple.