Judging from the line of people waiting to get into a still-closed Théâtre Lumière (seating capacity: 2,281) at 7:45 this morning the anticipation was high for Jacques Audiard’s return to the Croisette, “Rust and Bone.” It was in this same theatre that three years ago we discovered the history- and career-making “A Prophet,” one of the best films made in the last twenty years. One can’t help wondering if the self-effacing Audiard felt any sort of pressure, this second go around. One thing’s for sure: the hatted cineaste raised the bar too high with that triumph of cinema he conjured back then, his own two-headed monster.
The film is good, very very good, but its characters leave something to be desired. Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) plays an Orca trainer at the equivalent of Seaworld in an anonymous French city in the south. After a devastating accident she awakes unable to walk. From her pit of despair she calls Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a bouncer at a club she used to go to, and a tenuous relationship ensues between the two.
Play the game of anticipation from here, guessing when Alain will grasp that Stéphanie wants more than just the occasional grunt of acknowledgment from him. She’s developed a liking toward him, we guess, although Audiard studiously keeps us in the dark about anyone’s true feelings, but remains undemanding—aloof, even—so as not to scare the guy away.
Schoenaerts’s Alain, a rough-cut question-mark of a man, sometimes alpha, sometimes zeta, trips and falls all over his life and that of a son, until he lands a job as security guard. He’s moved in with his sister in the South of France (don’t get jealous, it’s the wrong side of the tracks she’s in) after what appears to be a disastrous previous chapter (the film opens with him and the kid hitchhiking, and then riding on a train, going through trash receptacles for food). A prize-winning kickboxer, he participates in street fights to pad his monthly income under the weary gaze, at first, of a Stéphanie who will later become the fights bets-taker and impresario, likely.
If you base yourself on “A Prophet” there’s something single-sided, deceptively simple about Stéphanie and Alain’s characters, which leaves you hollow. Stéphanie especially does not evolve significantly from her days as a trainer to becoming wheelchair-bound.
That said, it’s immediately recognizable with “Rust and Bone,” you’re on master filmmaker territory. Production design, dialog, plot, speed nothing overwhelms the other, this ship advancing steadily towards its conclusion. Jacques Audiard may be our most vital filmmaker living today. A great new film, though not one whose characters reach the intellectual complexity of Malik (Tahar Rahim) in “A prophet.”