Marion Cotillard as Stephanie and Matthias Schoenaerts as Ali in "Rust… (Jean-Baptiste Modino /…)
If French cinema still carries a reputation for talky chamber pieces of the bourgeoisie, here's a visceral slice of life in the raw: Whether it's the killer whales, the prominent Katy Perry song, the back-alley fighting or its unlikely romance set against day-to-day hardships in the South of France, the new "Rust and Bone" is imagistic and emotionally wrought, pushing into surprising territories.
Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard's previous film, "A Prophet," was another high-pitched drama and was nominated for the foreign language Academy Award. The film hit a sweet spot with audiences and critics alike at home and abroad, and the filmmaker was hailed as "the French Scorsese." "Rust and Bone," opening Dec. 7 in Los Angeles, is in many ways a direct response to "A Prophet," seeking out light, space and love in contrast to the dark, hurtling prison drama of Audiard's previous film.
Adapted from a pair of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, the film follows an orca trainer at a Sea World-style marine park named Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), who loses her legs in an accident at work. Battling a deep depression, she reaches out to a bouncer and sometimes boxer she had met only once named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is trying to make things work for himself and his young son. Both damaged, Stephanie and Ali heal each other, bodies and souls.
VIDEO: The Envelope Screening Series | 'Rust and Bone'
"We wanted to build a movie you could not anticipate, you wouldn't know what would be next," Audiard said of wanting to get away from the mechanics of the crime genre.
Audiard's co-writer Thomas Bidegain added, "Every day we would have to find a balance, all the way through, from the writing to the music mix. It was the balance between realism and stylization. If you get too realistic it gets very boring, and if it's too stylized you lose touch, you don't believe the story anymore."
"Rust and Bone" arrives as part of a strong round of French films, some of which have found favor with U.S. audiences. Even with its Hollywood trappings, last year's Oscar triumph "The Artist" was very much a French film. The worldwide box office smash "The Intouchables," now France's submission for this year's Academy Award for foreign language film, has made more than $12 million in the U.S. too. Among the 50-some French films released in the U.S. this year, it would seem the pump is primed for another breakout French hit, and "Rust and Bone" could be that film.
Certainly that will be aided by the presence of the 37-year-old Cotillard, who won an Academy Award in 2008 for her role in the French-language "La Vie en Rose," a biopic of singer Edith Piaf. Since then she has become an international star in films such as "Midnight in Paris" and "The Dark Knight Rises," her air of willful self-possession seeming at once mysterious and attainable.
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According to Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, distributor of "Rust and Bone," younger mainstream audiences seem to have less of a problem with subtitles than the previous generation, and stars like Cotillard make "those foreign films become more commercial. And a lot of them become films that aren't perceived as foreign."
Just as Hollywood is looking more and more beyond its own borders for partners and revenue, so too is the French film industry. Of the 71 films submitted for the upcoming foreign language Academy Award, nearly a dozen are French co-productions, including films from Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Romania and Michael Haneke's Austrian submission "Amour," a bracing story of love at the end of life set in Paris. Last year's Iranian Oscar winner, Asghar Farhadi, is shooting his next film in France too.
"In the last few years, people have discovered that French cinema is very diversified," said Francois Truffart, executive producer and programmer with the COL-COA film festival in Los Angeles, pointing to not only films that play the arthouse circuit but also the recent mainstream hit "Taken 2." "And you have more and more writers and producers in France who are working on universal stories and films that can be understandable for audiences not only in France but overseas."
The film "Holy Motors" from cult director Leos Carax is also in theaters, and on the horizon will be such intriguing films as Olivier Assayas' semi-autobiographical "Something in the Air," François Ozon's "In the House" and the romantic comedy "Populaire."
'Rust and Bone': Marion Cotillard solidifies front-runner status