As these two battered but determined adults connect, they shift into new, unexpected registers. A great deal of the pleasure watching this transformation comes from the mesmerizing, alternately endearing and startling performances of Cotillard and Schoenaerts. But the screenplay deserves acknowledgement as well, for French writer/director Jacques Audiard avoids melodramatic pitfalls in favor of developing emotionally and physically challenged, complex individuals. At times both, especially Ali, risk losing audience sympathy with their authentically human failings.
Previously a fighter, Ali takes up brutal, no holds barred, bare knuckle, illegal street fighting. It's difficult to watch precisely because of its realism, but Ali doesn't have a lot of choices after he moves from Belgium into his sister Anna's apartment in southern France, clashes with her boyfriend, and almost loses his son in a second, terrifying accident. Meantime Ali causes Anna problems where she works at a supermarket. Set in Antibes, the bright sunlight, gorgeous turquoise water, and white sand beach beckon and taunt with the contrast to the circumscribed, literally and symbolically gloomy options available.
Audiard impressed me three years ago with "A Prophet," a gut-wrenching story of an Arab prisoner in a racist French prison, and "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," his 2005 study of a talented pianist torn between crime and music. His cinematic instincts range from the visceral to the unpredictable, always engrossing and confrontational. Alexandre Desplat's music creates an effective backdrop. Juliette Welfling's editing copies the jagged design of the story, so much so that "Rust and Bone" leaves the viewer exhausted but deeply satisfied. In French with English subtitles. At a Landmark Theatre.