Rust and Bone

reviewed by Scotty Barnhart

Similar shots bookend Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2012): impressionistic close-ups of a woman’s face. Proceeding and preceding these shots, two characters collapse into water: the woman into a pool and a boy into a pond. Their paralleling accidents become metaphors for a communal loss of complacency, for our collapsing economic and domestic spheres. Other than Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Rust and Bone was the only 2012 Savannah Film Festival nighttime screening to remind viewers of the global recession.

The movie (loosely adapted from Craig Davidson’s same-titled collection of short fiction) opens with Ali Van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose first name references the protagonist of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), relocating to Antibes, a sun-drenched resort destination on the French Riviera (think To Catch a Thief [1955]). In Fear Eats the Soul, Munich is “small, dilapidated” and “emotionally and otherwise impoverished. Considered by many to number among Germany’s most beautiful cities, one never gets a glimpse of that touristic seductiveness.”[1] For example, Fassbinder opens with a close-up of “a water-filled pothole . . . an abject and shallow abyss that represents the void we all journey, that void called Life.”[2] Like Fassbinder, Audiard navigates Antibes’s shadow world: the nighttime discothèques, the shit-filled dog houses,  the curtained bedrooms, the fluorescently lit big-box retailers, and the illegal street fighting rings.

Source: Sony Picture Classics.

To attain this aesthetic, Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine researched 1930s American cinema: “We had in mind an echo of the Great Depression . . . . We wanted to find a brutal and contrasting aesthetic. We talked about neo-expressionism. Tod Browning’s Freaks, the films of Lon Chaney, the circus and fairground films of the Great Depression, in which the strangeness of the visuals sublimates the blackness of reality. We talked about monstrous tales.”[3]

Ali (who is “emotionally and otherwise impoverished”) relocates to Antibes for employment, following migratory protagonists of the Depression like James Allen (Paul Muni) in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), or even Fassbinder’s Ali (El Hedi Ben Salem). From the beginning, economic strife pervades Rust and Bone: Sam, Ali’s estranged son, was his mother’s drug mule; a destitute Ali and Sam steal sandwiches; Ali’s sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), a supermarket cashier, pilfers expiring food; and Ali and Sam, once homeless, live in Anna’s garage.

A former prizefighter, Ali first bounces a discothèque, The Annex. One night, he separates a girl from a brawl. She’s Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca trainer at Marineland (Rust and Bone‘s “circus or fairground”). Following another bouncer’s advice, Ali escorts her home, hoping for sex.  But upon arrival, he encounters her boyfriend, who is angered by her irresponsibility.  She’s supposedly safer at home, but Rust and Bone asks, “Is anybody safe? Is security obtainable?”

And then tragedy strikes: during Stéphanie’s “routine” (meaning her show, as well as her complacency), a whale attack dismembers her legs. Her trainer’s platform, livelihood, and self-reliance all collapse from beneath her. Fontaine captures an elusive, beautiful low-angle shot of Stéphanie sinking: his version of Fassbinder’s “abject and shallow abyss.” Of course, the accident is highly publicized. Now a pariah, Stéphanie withdraws into her new, handicapable apartment. But she calls Ali (perhaps because he’s also, emotionally, crippled). They’ve both sunk to the bottom of the figurative orca pool of life and must re-emerge together.

A lot of Rust and Bone is about the human struggle between your present situation and your pride (something the orcas performing at Marineland symbolize). For instance, Sam, neglected by Ali and raised by Anna, finds life’s pleasures through Anna’s dogs. He doesn’t care that he’s always covered in dog shit.

Rust and Bone, much like Fear Eats the Soul, upon initial release, presents moments from a relationship that audiences might react to with discomfort or repulsion. Audiard candidly presents sex between friends-with-benefits: a traumatized amputee and volatile philanderer. With Cotillard and Schoenaert in missionary position, Fontaine’s camera slowly tracks along their pale bodies from right-to-left (a dissonant movement toward abjection), from their heads toward the inevitable: Ali cradling Stéphanie’s nub as he thrusts. Why do we squirm at the image? Like Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), Rust and Bone shares the hard-to-watch effects of disability on a relationship.

Audiard was initially attracted to Davidson’s stories by their “Crisis . . . a modern world that is wobbling . . . contemporary chaos and barbarism.”[4] Amidst the volatility of this modern, wobbling world, Ali moves from job-to-job, including security guard. (We pay others to protect us, but can they? Rust and Bone ironically twists this notion.) He ultimately descends into lucrative barbarism: bare-knuckled street brawling.

Stéphanie comes to manage Rust and Bone‘s new show beast: Ali. The orcas of Rust and Bone are highly symbolic (take, for instance, their mostly black and sparingly white, Yin-Yang skin). They easily compare to Ali: the trained, beautiful monster who might turn at any moment. Like the whale, Ali is alluring, but dangerous. Thus, as in the Depression-era horror movies like Freaks that influenced Audiard and Fontaine, the line between human and monster (or creature) blurs for both Stéphanie, the amputee, and the violence-prone Ali. Stéphanie first watches with fear, then pride as Ali flawlessly performs like her trained orca. The brutality of Antibes’s gladiatorial street fighting is partly recorded with slow motion close-ups of blood and teeth, illustrating Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” However, there’s an economic factor. It’s not barbarism, but barbarism-for-pay: a beautified revision of YouTube street brawling.

Watching Ali fight for survival within a mass of strangers, I asked: “Who are these men? What are their stories? What forced them to this? We know Ali’s story, but what are theirs? And if the men fight, what about the women?” Through this mass, Audiard captures Davidson’s wobbling world on the verge of collapse. In fact, the penultimate sequence of Rust and Bone completes a parallelism: another collapse into water. And the movie’s final image—a shadowy, impressionistic close-up of  Stéphanie’s face—returns the narrative to the begining, which asks with a trace of uncertainty: is security obtainable and does complacency finally exist in this modern, wobbling world? Or might another monster attack?

Published December 3, 2012.


[1] Laura Cottingham, Fear Eats the Soul (London: British Film Institute, 2005), 51.

[2] Ibid, 45.

[3]Rust and Bone.” Sony Pictures Classics.  Accessed November 23, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

Scotty Barnhart was born and raised in Elkins, West Virginia. He received his B.A. in English from Davis & Elkins College in 2009. He is currently completing his M.A. in Cinema Studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is the Graduate Assistant for the Cinema Studies department, as well as Student Editor for The Cine-Files. Some of his research interests include the history of classical Hollywood, genre theory, and the life and work of Alfred Hitchcock. His master’s thesis is a close reading of The Invisible Man (1933). He resides in the suburbs of Savannah with his wife, Erin, and dog, Maxwell.