R (strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language); 122 min.
American movies have a long tradition of insisting that characters have an arc, that we see signs of "growth" between the moment we meet someone on screen until the closing credits. We like to understand "motivations," the things that draw lovers together after the movie has spent a lot of time keeping them apart. Life doesn't necessarily work that way, but the movies do.
The French drama Rust and Bone runs roughshod over those traditions. An unconventional romance that isn't particularly romantic, it's about two damaged people who are pulled together even though the attraction is hard to pinpoint, the "growth" too insignificant to measure.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is poor and jobless, begging, borrowing and stealing his way to the south of France with his 5-year-old son (Armand Verdure). Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is an Orca trainer at a French Riviera Marineland park. She rarely smiles and seems to take pleasure in nothing.
The connection between Ali and Steph is hard to figure. They meet when he breaks up a fight that involved a guy hitting on her, and then hitting her, in a nightclub. Naturally, when there's an Orca accident and she loses her legs, she calls Ali. Here's a brusque brute who may appeal to some oddly Gallic sense of macho in her but who, if nothing else, won't pity or coddle her.
The Oscar-winning Cotillard, who is Angelina Jolie-thin for this film, is getting a little Oscar buzz for her performance in what is essentially a stunt. Yes, the movies have gotten very good at erasing legs below the knee. Yes, she's convincing in the wheelchair, or wearing prosthetic limbs. But her performance gives us so little that there's not only no arc to follow, there are too few moments of great empathy to connect us to her.
This film, from the director of A Prophet, maintains a palpable tension between the characters. We're never sure what explosions they're capable of with each other. But Rust and Bone doesn't earn the ending it delivers.
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-- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service