Rust and Bone (2012), directed by Jacques Audiard

Rust and Bone is a movie you feel as much as you watch. As the credits rolled I knew, I believed, I had just seen a great film, even if I couldn’t immediately tell why. This is one of my favourite feelings to have after a movie. It means I haven’t been sitting there pondering every frame, analyzing the technique, enjoying the performances. It means I have been carried away and have been lost in the movie. When the credits come on it is almost like waking up. It’s a wonderful feeling.

Some people might think this is a form of deception. That if you put enough Bon Iver songs on the soundtrack and have everyone saying ambiguous things in French and utilize lots of underwater, “artsy” camera work a person like myself can be lulled into thinking they have seen something magnificent.

Well, first of all, so what? If you leave the theatre having had a great experience, for whatever reason, on whatever level, then the movie has succeeded. All movies are manipulative by nature.

And second of all, I don’t believe that for a second. I see many movies that impress me on a multitude of levels but leave a voice in the back of my head telling me something didn’t work. Beasts of the Southern Wild did that to me. On every surface level I liked it, but the more I’ve thought about it since I saw it, the more the very memory of it irritates me.

(The main reasons were a doe-eyed vision of poverty and its knock-off, empty Terrence Malick stylings.)

Rust and Bone left me with the opposite feeling. I knew I loved it but also knew that it would take some thought, and likely repeated viewings, to fully understand its richness.

I wanted to think about Marion Cotillard’s character and what was it about the violent nature of Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) that drew her to him. I wanted to linger on the image of Alain breaking his hand punching the ice as his son drowns below it. I wanted to consider the subdued but concise pace of the movie, and how Audiard can make a film without a traditional narrative arc so enthralling.

With A Prophet and now Rust and Bone to his name, Audiard is fast becoming one of the most interesting directors working today (I’m thinking of putting together a list on that very subject…). His greatest strength is the way he presents characters that are in many ways detestable, and asks us to look for their redeeming qualities.

Alain is not a good man. He is violent and he treats his son terribly. He uses women and seems to have no interest in establishing or maintaining a meaningful connection to anyone. In one sense this appeals to Stephanie, who likes the fact that he treats her no differently than anyone else, despite her injury. On the other hand, she is deeply hurt when he picks up another girl in front of her and shows her how disposable she is to him.

There were times I wanted to tell her to kick him to the curb. But Audiard takes his time, he lingers on the relationship. He doesn’t reduce it to a set of speeches or a contrived outcome. He gives it time to breathe, and meander, and develop. As Stephanie regains her confidence, primarily through managing Alain’s fights, she begins to demand more of him. Being who he is, he runs away.

See, this is what the film has done for me. This is me basically just trying to figure it out, thinking about these rich characters and what it is about the movie that touched me. What a wonderful thing for a film to do. Not to get too soap box-ie, but I was reading today Steven Soderbergh saying that audiences don’t like ambiguity in their films, and especially in their characters. This is, of course, a terrible shame. Because for film to capture and shine light on the beauty of life, it must embrace ambiguity. Anything less is deceitful.

Rust and Bone is not deceitful. It is rich and beautiful. It is a wonderfully crafted look at the best and worst of human nature, of the fight that is life. It is thoughtful cinema. We could do with a bit more like it.

Rust and Bone is in cinemas now.