In Carl Sagan’s Cosmos there’s a moment where the writer/scientist/straight-up good guy says, in so many words, that there’s more than one human nature. While our “passionate, soaring intelligence” has engineered robots that explore other planets, we still wrestle with our animal tendencies and instincts, which are the cause of so much sadness and yet somehow remain at the core of our humanity. Rust and Bone, a film by Jacques Audiard, explores how our various human natures interact in different relationships and shades of love. But don’t expect any sentimentality. Take it from the title: this is raw, a love story of wounds.
The first love (or relationship) depicted in the film is that of family. Alain (played with silent vigor by the melon-muscled Matthias Schoenaerts) hitchhikes with his son (Armand Verdure) to southeastern France. They are poor. Alain robs electronics to make ends meet. He is not, however, a bad father. He loves his son, but his relationship with him begins to suffer as the two start new lives in the home of Alain’s sister.
This is where things get complicated. A man who is a father doesn’t stop being a man. Alain, a boxer, takes to the clubs, to working out. He’ll even be hours late picking up his son from school because he’s too busy having sex with random workers-out. He’s something of a lone wolf, living to satisfy himself, until one fateful night.
During a bloody scuffle at a club, he meets a woman who ends up being more than just a fling. Enter Stéphanie (played by the Academy Award winning Marion Cotillard), who suffers a terrible accident involving the animals she works with and adores: killer whales.
She loses her legs, at the knees, and can’t work with her whales. She is a mess, and is forced to recreate herself. At one stage in her recovery, she reaches out to Alain, and thus begins something. Perhaps it’s love. Perhaps it’s a friends-with-benefits thing. It’s difficult to tell. But it does help Stéphanie recover, albeit in a cruel, complicated way.
An example: The two are drinking coffee by the sea. Suddenly, Alain whips off his clothes and goes for a swim, leaving the legless Stéphanie watching on the beach. Awkward, right? But the sight of Alain’s swimming in the morning-lit waves is so weirdly pure (in an animal sort of way) that you don’t hold it against him. And neither does Stéphanie. In the end, she makes Alain carry her out to sea for a healing dip.
The two start sleeping together. At first, it’s an act of fun and therapy. The two also start going to street fights, in which Alain and his opponents shed blood and teeth. The brutality of the fights, however, doesn’t scare Stéphanie. If anything, Alain’s fury excites her, and gives her life new meaning. She’s left one animal (the whales) and found a new one (Alain.)
It’s true: Alain is something of a brute, and his self-satisfying actions get him into trouble. When he goes to clubs with Stéphanie, he’ll leave with another woman. His sleazy job setting up cameras to spy on workers gets his sister fired. And as for his son? Alain just yells at him and throws him into the things for nothing more than being a boy. These offenses, of course, don’t make Alain a villain. If anything, they define his issues — thus defining, as if by relief, his humanity.
To his credit, Alain will make the moral choice when the world crumbles under his toes, or those of his son. Alain’s brutishness, in the movie’s heart-shredding climax, is turned into a weapon of love: he breaks his well-groomed boxer’s hands in an attempt to save his boy’s life. The encounter with death brings out various aspects of Alain’s nature. Strength, fury, passion only get him so far. In the end, even a fighter needs help, bandages, a shoulder, family, a phone call from that one girl out of nowhere, affection, words, love.
Rust and Bone is playing at the Uptown Theatre.