Jacques Audiard's last film, A Prophet, was one of the best films of the last decade, and could be described as The Godfather of prison films. For his follow-up, Audiard more closely follows the coda of his first internationally distributed film: The Beat My Heart Skipped, a somber film with quick bursts of violence. If there's a common thread in Audiard's work, it is people trying to find stability and being accepting of violence to obtain that stability.
Rust and Bone is a story of two people who use their bodies differently, and are sized up on sight.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, of Bullhead, and here, very bull-headed) is a hulking tower, brick wall of a man, who moves from job to job as a bouncer, or security guard. He has a young son (Armand Verdure) he hardly knows, lives in the garage of his sister (Corinne Masiero) and is driven by impulsive physical releases: fists and sex.
Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is an orca trainer at Marineland. Her movements are fluid and propulsive. She confesses to feeling a small thrill by going to bars to get men "hot and bothered" and leave them unsatisfied.
When Ali and Stephanie meet they are both in control of their bodies, although Stephanie is attacked and beaten at the club that Ali is working at. He offers her a ride home, but in the car ride he also calls her a whore which is essentially Ali's character throughout the film: trying to do the right thing, but being very brutish and unable to turn off impulsive words and actions. By the time Ali and Stephanie meet again, their bodies have gone through changes: Stephanie lost her legs in an accident, and Ali becomes a fighter for cash in scrapyard brawls.
Rust and Bone is a familiar story, and it largely goes the way that one would expect, essentially a princess who re-evaluates during tragedy and a fighter who has to learn when to be soft. They are able to assist each other because they lack the personal history that would lead to pity. Although it hits most of the story notes that one would expect, the story is elevated by the performances of Cotillard and Schoenaerts, a soundtrack that uses Katy Perry and Bruce Springsteen to great effect and bursts of stunning cinematography by Stephane Fontaine: spinning teeth, the movements of Orcas underwater, and a very important color palette.
What makes Rust and Bone most interesting as a film is the visual cues of purple flashes. A color that is an equal mixture of red and blue, water and blood, purple occurs when characters are awakening from injury and gaining control over their bodies. The color is also referenced through waves washing over a sleeping child or a blinking mimicry of eyes adjusting to sunlight when they are returning to the world.
Following a masterpiece, and to many an announcement of arrival to the film world, is a difficult thing to do. With Rust and Bone, Audiard went smaller in scope and perhaps bets too much on the likeability of Cotillard as an actress to fully flesh her character out before tragedy strikes, but his deft ability of using visuals to enhance his storytelling keeps him in an important class of current filmmakers.