Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os), 120 mins, rated TBA, opens 28 March 2013

By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer

(This is my review as published in the April issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)

Marion Cotillard, the star of Rust and Bone, has established herself as one of today's best actors, whether working in French or English. She first came to the notice of English-speakers for her tour-de-force role as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007). She won an Oscar for best actress in a leading role for that performance, and has since appeared in popular films such as Inception (2010), Midnight in Paris (2011), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

She is one of only three actresses to have won a best actress Oscar for performances in a language other than English. (The other two are Sophia Loren in Two Women (1960) and Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God (1986), using American sign language).

In Rust and Bone, set mostly on the Côte d’Azur, Cotillard (playing Stéphanie) has to make a drastic transformation. We first see her in a nightclub where, slightly drunk, she becomes involved in an ugly fight, from which she is rescued by bouncer Ali (the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts). Earlier we have seen that Ali is not your stock-standard bouncer. He has a young son, his no-good wife has abandoned them, and he is desperately poor, living in the garage of his sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero) for lack of anywhere better.

The director, Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, 2009, The Beat My Heart Skipped, 2005) is concerned with the contrast between the rich and poor on the Côte d’Azur, and other social issues such as the ethics of management spying on its workers. This adds texture and veracity to the film’s background, but always in the foreground is the extraordinary evolution of the characters of Ali and Stéphanie.

Ali soon learns that Stéphanie is not your average nightclub floozy. She has an unusual job: she trains and performs with killer whales at a marine park in Antibes. Ali leaves her his phone number, not really expecting to hear from her again. He probably would have been right, were it not for the fact that tragedy strikes Stéphanie, forcing in her a major physical and emotional transformation (the physical transformation is achieved by means of some remarkable CGI). And Stéphanie’s change is itself the catalyst for a profound change in Ali.

This could have been the most ordinary of melodramas, despite the odd involvement of the killer whales and the Marineland show (which is tacky in an 'only-in-France' way, with the animals and their trainers “dancing” to disco music). But Audiard  leavens both the melodrama and the love story with some hard-to-watch scenes involving Ali’s attempt to make some extra money as a fist-fighter.

Audiard has said that he wanted “to look emotions in the eye and take them to the end, even to risk going too far and being excessive and ridiculous.” He is on the verge of this towards the end of the film in a scene involving Ali’s young son, Sam (Armand Verdure). But Audiard has impeccable judgment. In the end he achieves an exquisite balance of the sweet and the horrific, and combines it with some unexpected, almost expressionist cinematography (the French Riviera has never looked quite like this). Together with finely-judged performances by Cotillard and Schoenaerts, it makes for a far more interesting film than it might have been, had Audiard remained faithful to the source material: several short stories by the Canadian writer Craig Davidson.

Original music is provided by the very busy Alexandre Desplat, with some well-chosen popular songs as well (Stéphanie loves dancing). And there is an extraordinary scene involving Stéphanie confronting a killer whale once more from behind the aquarium glass, choreographing the movements of the giant mammal with the delicacy of a maestro. A bit like director Audiard, really.