In a way, they are characters straight out of a typical romantic comedy: Ali, the rough, wounded fighter with a heart of gold, and Stéphanie, the delicate flower whose inner strength allows her to overcome painful tragedy. The two meet cute in a nightclub. He has a son, she has a boyfriend. They circle each other warily for weeks, and it’s no surprise when they end up in bed together. But Rust and Bone is nothing like your typical romantic comedy—there are few laughs, and little in the way of traditional romance—and, thanks to a pair of brutally powerful performances from Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard—Ali and Stéphanie are utterly unlike any pair seen on screen in recent memory.
For Schoenaerts, a rising Belgian actor whose international breakthrough came with his star performance in the Oscar-nominated Bullhead earlier this year, Rust and Bone—directed by A Prophet’s Jacques Audiard—was an instant winner. “To me, the script read as a very strong, offbeat, original love story,” he explains during a brief stop in New York as the awards-season whirlwind starts to ramp up. “The character was full of contradictions, full of contrasts, very ambiguous—but at the same time very rich.” His Ali has been beaten down by life, a young man trying to raise his son without a permanent home or a steady job, with a quiet rage within that flares up in an instant.
But Ali is also tender and gentle, especially to Stéphanie, and especially after an accident at the marine park where she works leaves both her legs amputated. He helps her with her errands, keeps her company, and, in a glorious and luminous scene, carries her into the Mediterranean for a liberating swim. That dichotomy was, according to Schoenaerts, the key that drew him to the role. “It was definitely a challenge to find the right balance between all these elements,” he says, “and to find a way to portray him in the richest possible way.”
There are elements of melodrama to Rust and Bone—in its overwhelming emotions, in its tortured relationships, in its vision of life as a long and enduring agony—but there is also a delicate transcendence. The Cap d’Antibes has rarely looked as downtrodden as it does here, but there is a quotidian beauty in the sun glinting off the sea, the shrill yelps of a litter of small puppies, the sway of Stéphanie’s soft, floral-print dress. It’s a reminder that love is not always the headlong rush we imagine it to be, that strength comes from suffering, that it can be more difficult to know ourselves than to know others. Stéphanie and Ali are, in the end, nothing more or less than the same lost souls as the rest of us. Outsize as their travails may be, they are just two hurt people fumbling their way towards each other in the dark.
Rust and Bone is out now from Sony Pictures Classics. Styling by Akari Endo-Gaut at Frank Reps. Grooming by Lisa-Raquel at See Management. Shot on location at The Standard, High Line, New York.