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De rouille et d’os

December 25, 2012
De rouille et d'os

There seems to be a trend in tearjerkers; more and more they resemble action blockbusters.  It’s not that they’re being overwhelmed with special effects and explosions, but that they increasingly shortchange storytelling in favor of a sequence of big, emotional set pieces.  The individual pieces deliver an idea of what the target audience wants, but the whole can’t hang together properly.  This trend even extends to French films, such as De rouille et d’os — subtitled in English as Rust and Bone.

The story, such as it is, follows the Belgian Alain “Ali” van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts), who brings his young son, Sam (Armand Verdure), to the Côte d’Azur to stay with his sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero).  Ali seems functionally homeless — he feeds Sam on the train by scavenging the rubbish left behind by other passengers — and Anna isn’t much better.  She and her husband make ends meet between his delivery driving and her job as a big box cashier by taking home expired food items destined for the store’s trash bin.

Ali gets a job with a security company, which leads him conveniently into the movie’s major arcs.  One night, bouncing at a dance club, he breaks up a fight involving a woman, Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), and drives her home before being shooed off by her boyfriend.  Another night, watching over a retail store he meets a man (Bouli Lanners) installing surveillance cameras to provide managers with excuses to fire the workers.  Not only does this provide Ali another source of income, it leads to a chance to get in on some underground fights where he can exercise his kickboxing skill.

Stéphanie, for her part, is an orca trainer at Marineland, at least until an accident leaves her maimed, depressed, and alone.  She reaches out and makes contact with Ali, who inspires her to make a dramatic recovery while at the same time providing a sense of direction and stability in his life.

The thing is, while each piece makes sense separately, none of them fit together well at all.  Yes, Stéphanie reaches out to Ali, but why? it’s never addressed.  She seems worried and disapproving of his kickboxing, but later she is an enthusiastic supporter, as if a switch has been flipped when she first watches him fight.  Are we to believe that a woman’s lust for an athletic man instantly swamps her concern for his safety?

The story lines come from nowhere and go nowhere.  Sam’s more seems to be in some sort of trouble, but nothing ever comes of it and we never hear anything more about it.  Stéphanie has some serious interpersonal issues going on — issues which it’s made clear aren’t magically gone — but again we never really explore her back-story and we see no real resolution of this line.  I know that the movie was based on one of Craig Davidson’s short stories, where we might expect such a narrow window, but at feature length the story needs more chrome than rust; more meat than bone.

Cotillard is effective, as usual, but wasted in an arc that goes nowhere.  Still, the physicality of her post-accident performance is impressive, and the makeup and special-effects work is only partly responsible.  Schoenaerts continues to carve out the niche he started in Rundskop; he’s clearly a master in the medium of warped, misdirected masculinity.  Still, such a character can only sustain interest for so long, even as eye candy.

It’s a common argument that the reason women don’t typically enjoy pornography is the lack of effective stories leading from one money-shot to another.  Clearly the people making films like this targeted at female audiences disagree: a weak, unsustainable story is fine; it’s just that they have to run between emotional money-shots.  As for me, I’d prefer something more substantial, or at least more explosions.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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