Emotionally brutal and disturbingly violent, Rust and Bone’s best and worst aspect is its director, Jacques Audiard. Best, because Audiard’s talent (combined with momentous performances by his actors) singlehandedly elevates material that is difficult and incredibly susceptible to trashy sentimentality. Worst, because his previous film, the dazzling crime epic A Prophet was not only the best film of 2009, but one of the most acclaimed films of the 2000s and one of best prison films ever made. Rust and Bone, on the other hand, does not have such high aspirations.
In an earth-shattering performance, Marion Cotillard not only earns the Best Actress nomination she is likely to garner in February, but proves that her Oscar win for La Vie en Rose was no fluke. Instead, Cotillard (often wasted in, dare I say it, pointless supporting roles in Christopher Nolan blockbusters) delivers magnificently. Cotillard is not an outwardly expressive actress, but her ability to communicate through subtle looks and gestures is almost unparalleled. The tragic discovery of her paralysis is accentuated by Cotillard’s repeated screams of “What did you do to my legs?” while the nurse cradles her in her lap.
In a more notable and much lauded scene, Cotillard turns a bit of physical acting and effective framing into an opportunity to make Katy Perry’s clamorous “Firework” genuinely heartbreaking. It works so beautifully that it will likely prompt tears for all but the most coldhearted audience member. Mattias Schoenarts, known best for last year’s performance in Bullhead, similarly rises to the occasion in a role that is saddled with convention.
Ultimately, Rust and Bone is let down by a story that does not eschew, but embraces a level of melodrama that is impossible to spin into a great film. Nevertheless, it can be spun into an emotionally involving, even devastating, work that boasts impressive filmmaking and one of the best performances of the year. For Audiard, for now, that should be more than enough.