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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, April 20, 2014

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Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard star in "Rust and Bone."
Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard star in "Rust and Bone."

Lead performances find the soul in wearying "Rust and Bone"

The main characters of "Rust and Bone," played by Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts, have names, but they might as well go by the title's featured elements. They're both broken and beaten people, their wounds – both emotional and physical – covered with gritty, tough calluses. Yet somehow, beneath all that hurt and pain, they find a way to feel, love and survive.

French director Jacques Audiard presents a hard, rough tale, beautifully shot and guided by two captivating lead performances, but there's something missing. For all of its seemingly natural and realistic grit, a strenuously heavy hand for drama pulls "Rust and Bone" down. It's less of a serious movie than a movie that wants to be serious. I don't want to use the dreaded p-word, but it's unfortunately the one that fits best: pretentious.

Schoenaerts (from last year's "Bullhead") plays Ali, a wannabe kickboxer suddenly put in charge of his young son (Armand Verdure). Ali has almost no money for himself, much less for a child, so the two move in with his estranged sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) while Ali attempts to find a job in between trips to the gym and quick one-night stands.

He eventually wrangles a job as a bouncer at a popular nightclub, where he meets Stéphanie (Golden Globe nominee Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at a French SeaWorld. He's graceless and awkward. She's bloody and bruised after a fight at the club. Things don't go far, and the two don't appear too intent on seeing each other again.

That is, until Stéphanie suffers a terrible accident at SeaWorld that leaves her without both of her legs. In her loneliness, she gives Ali a call, and the two form a vaguely sweet relationship from their broken selves – complicated by Ali's immaturity and responsibilities.

Audiard's last movie, the gritty prison drama "A Prophet," won itself an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film with its intense performances and authentic story with a few ethereal touches thrown in for art's sake. "Rust and Bone" plays much the same way, for better and for worse.

The French writer-director captures some beautiful shots – orcas slowly flying through the water, a bloody tooth skittering and spinning across the pavement – but he struggles to integrate them into his story. Stéphanie's big accident, a gorgeous but messy blur of images, suffers from emphasizing art over coherence. He has a similar problem with his soundtrack, with Bon Iver and strangely Katy Perry often intruding on the action. "A Prophet" sometimes had the same problem, but maybe I just like Turner Cody's "Corner of My Room" more than "Firework."

Where "Rust and Bone" really shows its wear, however, is in the story. Its source material is a collection of short stories by Craig Davidson, and as adapted by Audiard and his "A Prophet" co-writer Thomas Bidegain, it feels like it. The screenplay attempts to cover several relationships and story elements over its two-hour running time, and the emotion gets lost in the process. Ali's son disappears for large portions of the film, so when the movie turns its focus toward their bond, the audience's connection just isn't there.

It doesn't help that most of the material is so steeped in heavy seriousness that it pangs more of indie importance rather than a natural story of wounded people struggling to heal.

Luckily, most of the film's focus is on the relationship between Cotillard and Schoenaerts, and they don't hit a false note. Cotillard is mesmerizing, finding the wounded, bitter and raw humanity left inside Stéphanie after her horrid accident. The audience really feels like it is witnessing a woman heal before its eyes. Schoenaerts is her equal. Ali can be selfish and caring – sometimes in the same moment – not realizing how important he is to the people around him. It's a hard role, played with crucial sympathy.

Together, the two make "Rust and Bone" work. Even when the story feels off, Cotillard and Schoenaerts are on, making their complicated relationship come off the screen. Sometimes they're sweet. Other times, they're tragic.

But they're always fascinating to watch, and when Audiard's visual ideas bind with their performances – Cotillard's beautiful return to the orcas, Schoenaerts's harrowing ice skating trip with his son – you get a glimpse of a great movie. Those glimpses, however, can be exhausting to find through all the important drama – with important written in all caps.

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