Character studies are exactly what they sound like — studies. They primarily pique your interest and secondarily capture your spirit. Love stories, unsurprisingly, have reversed priorities.
An elegant character study just aching to stir feeling in love-story fashion, “Rust and Bone” leaves two deep footprints in your heart and mind rather than something truly fathomless in either such area.
Fortunately, extraordinary on-screen and off-screen talent distract from the identity crisis.
Ali van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a French drifter who believes in nothing but his next meal. It’s thus no surprise that Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a professional whale trainer with looks that kill, rejects his advances upon meeting him. But when Stephanie loses her legs in a horrific job-related accident, the tables begin to turn as Ali tries to learn the meaning of commitment.
Suffice it to say, the screenwriters chose to inject very little conflict into the script. They instead spend considerable runtime making these two lovers as complex and self-contradictory as people really are.
Audiences bored with Hollywood’s knack for oversimplification may deem this a mixed blessing. While truer to life than arguably most mainstream movies, the film depends on plot coincidences to make up for lost story time. The entire third act, in fact, is just one contrivance after another.
But much like Stephanie, the film seduces you into accepting its flaws. Unmannered yet utterly inspired cinematography gets up close and personal with the characters, particularly Ali. You find yourself understanding, if not relating to, the worldview of this apish brute.
To this end, Schoenaerts triumphs. Motivationally opaque yet bursting with energy, he reaches a level of nuance that speaks volumes to both the character as well as its actor’s brilliance.
Had this been a full-blown love story, Cotillard would no doubt have used her screen time to stand out in the same way. She, like the film, teases viewers with what could’ve been explored but emotionally wallops all the while.
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