On finding happiness with someone less-than-ideal

Rust and Bone

Directed by Jacques Audiard

Opens at the Charles Theatre on Jan. 18

In every relationship, there's a reacher and a settler. In the case of Stephanie and Ali, Stephanie is most certainly the settler: a comely, successful killer-whale trainer at a SeaWorld-type resort with a mild penchant for exhibitionism who pursues-in a nonchalant kind of way-an aimless, freeloading mesomorph who barely looks after his son, earns a living illegally installing security cameras for chain-store management, and supplements that income by participating in an underground kickboxing fight club. A single wrinkle exists in Stephanie and Ali's settler-reacher dynamic; Stephanie has lost her legs from the knee-down. As a result, she does a fair amount of reaching (both literally and figuratively) throughout Rust and Bone, an emotional drama from French director/screenwriter Jacques Audiard.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) comes to Antibes, a touristy seaside town in the south of France, by way of Belgium, traveling with no belongings save for his 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure). Impoverished to the point where he and Sam scavenge for dinner among the leftovers from passengers on the train from Belgium, he and Sam find food and shelter with Ali's deep-voiced, weathered sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), who works as a cashier at a grocery store. The siblings haven't seen each other in five years, and their reunion is tepid, marked by a halfhearted kiss on the cheek.

We soon learn that Sam was only recently entrusted to Ali, shirked by his drug-smuggling mother. Anna is the best thing to happen to the boy, providing him with attention and proper care. She lets him play with puppies and enrolls him in school. Ali, on the other hand, regards Sam with a blend of obligation, indifference, affection, and impatience. In one scene, he neglects to pick Sam up from school because he's banging a random chick he meets at his boxing gym.

Ali first encounters Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) pre-amputation, at a nightclub where Ali works as a bouncer. A scantily clad Stephanie gets into an altercation that leaves her with a bloody nose. Ali breaks up the fight, but not without bruising his knuckles on some guy's face. In a move above and beyond the duties of bouncerhood, he leaves work to drive Stephanie back to her apartment, where, while going inside to ice his hand, he meets her displeased boyfriend. In front of the scowling man, Ali tells her to call him if she needs anything. She seems somewhat impressed by his boldness, but given the ill-at-ease conversation the two have during their drive together-Ali tells her that she's dressed like a whore-one wouldn't think she would ever dial him up.

But the plot takes a left turn, and finds its main conflict, when Stephanie loses her legs in a work-related accident. Afterward, she withers. Depression overtakes her. Her boyfriend evaporates from her life, though that's not really explained. She loses will to live. And then she gives Ali a call, and he comes over. He proves to us that he's not a total jackass: He insists on getting sullen, unshowered Stephanie out of her place for some fresh air and a swim. The visit refreshes her. She and Ali make their trips to the beach a regular occurrence, and they start to get to know each other as friends. Because he facilitated this, we must assume, Stephanie gradually develops feelings for Ali.

Rust and Bone isn't what one would call riveting, given its lack of nail-biting chase scenes and game-changing plot twists. Audiard throws in a few curveballs but does so with the subtlety one expects of foreign dramas. A few kickboxing fight scenes-and they are bloody-constitute the flashiest on-screen moments.

Really, the film serves as a character study of two individuals with assorted hang-ups and backgrounds. (The screenplay was adapted from Canadian author Craig Davidson's collection of short stories of the same name.) If the premise sounds realistic, it's because it is. We feel for Stephanie. We sigh as she opens a cardboard box filled with her old high heels. We smile when she takes a walk on her new carbon limbs. We feel exasperated for her because she lets herself romanticize a guy who seems like a dick. But that happens.

Ali, while not quite a deadbeat-he does have a job, albeit a sordid one-is consistently careless and inconsiderate of others, to the point where we lose a good deal of sympathy for him. He's rough and gruff with his son, though he's mostly gentle with Stephanie: He isn't creepy or forward, their physical relationship just sort of happens. He voluntarily introduces her to his sister and Sam. He lets her accompany him to his fighting matches. Yet, he shrugs off any attachment she feels for him. In one scene, he takes her to a nightclub, where she eyes other girls' swaying hips and legs ruefully; he asks her to dance and she demurs; he starts grinding up on some other girl, then tells Stephanie that he's leaving with her.

We struggle with Ali and Stephanie's relationship throughout Rust and Bone; it's at times akin to hanging out with a friend who's dating someone you don't care for. And even as Ali works his way toward redemption-as a decent person-we can't help but think, He doesn't deserve her.

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