In Jacques Audiard‘s follow-up to the internationally-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated A Prophet, the French filmmaker decided to adapt a short story collection by Craig Davidson. But instead of doing a series of vignettes about different characters, Audiard attempts to string them together with a love story between two conflicted and complex characters. The result is Rust & Bone, a disarming and expressionist portrait of two people attempting to survive the unexpected challenges life throws our way. And while there are sincere moments of genuine heartfelt emotion, the film cannot escape a sense of disjointedness that results from the cramming of several smaller narratives into the lives of two people.

After a surreal montage of water dissolving over abstract imagery, we are plunged into the somber situation of Ali (played with brooding angst by Matthias Schoenaerts), who is hitchhiking with his five-year old son Sam. They travel by train to escape an inevitable homeless fate and arrive, oddly enough, in Cannes. But this is not the same Cannes glorified by glitz and glamour for two weeks in May. Instead, Audiard focuses on the working class people that inhabit the city year round. Ali reunites with his sister and finds work as a bouncer, where he randomly meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) after a night club brawl. He accompanies her back to her home and learns that her day job is training killer whales at Seaworld-esque amusement park. Without spoiling anything else, a tragedy arises that leads to an unexpected romance between Ali and Stephanie.

The strength of this film resides in the performances of both lead characters, strengthened further by Audiard’s naturalistic camera work. There is one breathtaking moment where Stephanie approaches the underwater tank and interacts with a killer whale through the looking glass. Another ferocious scene involves a tense moment between Ali and his son, unrelenting in its ferocity. These moments among others truly resonate and for some will be unforgettable, yet the film cannot escape a lack of cohesiveness that prevents the whole experience from gelling together.

It’s perplexing why Audiard decided to constantly shift perspective between his two main characters and introduce side stories and plot points that quickly fall to the wayside. There is a point in which Stephanie becomes a fight promoter for Ali’s bare knuckle back alley brawls that is forgotten almost as quickly as its introduced. There is also an emotional sucker punch towards the end that feels completely undeserved and again distances the emotional weight that the film tries to carry on its shoulder. To the film’s credit there is perhaps some of the best and most subtle use of CGI since Forrest Gump. Overall, Rust & Bone is a solid drama that features some great performances but due to a lack of coherence never climaxes to the emotional knockout that Audiard intends.

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Grade: B-

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