After suddenly finding himself face-to-face with a young son he hardly knows, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), penniless and friendless, takes refuge with his sister (Corinne Masiero). Meanwhile, he meets a beautiful woman, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), during a night club brawl. Stephanie trains killer whales at Marineland. When a performance ends in tragedy, a call in the night again brings them together.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Here are a few things Wikipedia has to say about 'killer whales’:
Killer whales as a species have a diverse diet, although individual populations often specialize in particular types of prey... Killer Whales and Pilot whales are the only non-human species in which the females go through menopause and live for decades after they have finished breeding... Killer whales are unique among cetaceans, as their heads become shorter as they age.
Now then, if the Orca have their own version of Wikipedia, what might its entry be for French actress Marion Cotillard and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts who star in Jacques Audiard's Rust & Bone?
(Translated from the millennial language of killer whales): Working conditions at Marineland prompt an attractive Orca to give a female trainer a whale of a bad time. For possible mating she turns to a not-overly-bright lower class guy who keeps forgetting to pick up his son at school but does remember to pick up extra cash by beating other guys to a pulp in illegal fights. Will they bond closely enough to watch each other's heads become shorter as they age?
We now return to our regularly scheduled human film critic.
Cotillard plays Stephanie, a sort of arrogant princess who enjoys teasing men when she's not training killer whales in a marine theme park in Antibes, in the South of France. Schoenaerts, whose riveting performance in Bullhead is echoed in another incredibly physical role, is Ali, an unemployed working class fellow ill-equipped to care for his five-year-old son. He's a body with a capital "B." Hers is compromised at the 25-minute mark.
Seamless effects work turns Stephanie into a double amputee. Cotillard (who, according to reports in the French press, snuck off to France in violation of her contract for The Dark Knight Rises to work on this film) couldn't be more convincing. The script, however, could.
Ali and Stephanie meet after he breaks up a fight at the dance club where he works as a bouncer. Ali and his son have left the industrial north of France to stay with Ali's sister and her husband not far from Cannes. (In fact, in several shots the Festival Palace where the film had its world premiere is clearly visible.)
Sis (the always impressive Corinne Masiero) is a supermarket cashier. Her husband drives a truck. They're poor but decent people, struggling to get by. Ali lives in the moment. He's not articulate.
And yet, Ali is the catalyst for Steph's gradual recovery.
The film is never maudlin but it is melodramatic. It has moments of earned emotion and effortless poetry. And yet, the theme of reconciliation – between man and woman, father and son, brother and sister, man and animal – feels kind of perfunctory and over-reaching.
The film, in a tangential but meaningful way, demonstrates the efficacy of compassionately run not-for-profit single-payer health care systems. There are two major accident-prompted health crises in the film (which is almost certainly one too many) and no French viewer would question the level of care the victims receive regardless of their financial resources.
The use of pre-existing songs is sometimes adequate and sometimes annoyingly clumsy. In one instance, only 'Waltzing Matilda’ would have been a more cloying choice.