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Gilbey on Film: Rust belt

Jacques Audiard tosses his audience some bones.

Jacques Audiard
Jacques Audiard at this year's Cannes Film Festival (Photograph: Getty Images)

Reluctant as I am to rain on anyone’s parade, to cast a pall over the party before the sausage rolls have even cooled, I have a bone to pick with Rust and Bone, which won the London Film Festival’s top prize on Saturday and opens in the UK next week. The director Jacques Audiard has had an incredible run of psychologically astute and cinematically sophisticated films (including A Self-Made Hero, The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet) but it has been interrupted by Rust and Bone.

There are many aspects to the film that ring false for me, but the most disappointing one for Audiard admirers is likely to be the way it uses documentary techniques to lay the groundwork for its bogus and entirely partial characterisation. As the picture begins, a stubble-headed bruiser and his young son are seen hitchhiking, then scavenging for food on a train and finally bumming around on a beach where the boy wears a Happy Meal box as a hat. This is lovely stuff, deftly edited (the cut from the child bleating “I’m hungry” to the shot of the father collecting scraps of discarded grub is particularly fine) and with a patience and implicit compassion that would not disgrace the Dardenne brothers.

The father, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), is taken in by his sister and brother-in-law in Antibes, and the boy starts school. Working as a nightclub bouncer, Ali comes to the aid of the soused Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) after she is assaulted on the dancefloor, and drives her home. Ali is a bit of a knucklehead - on the way, his idea of charming small-talk is to comment that she dresses like a prostitute - but we know he’s a good egg really. And he gets a chance to prove it when Stephanie, a whale trainer, suffers a terrible accident at work which results in the loss of both her legs.

At a time in her life when she is feeling diminished, Ali offers selflessly to have sex with her whenever she wants. The film might propose a symbolic bond between Ali and the orca which caused Stephanie’s accident - both are hulking mammals prone to harm anyone in their immediate vicinity, and both are subject to Stephanie’s urge to tame them. But the idea that there’s any real risk or danger to the relationship is a joke, even once we’ve seen Ali throw his son on the sofa, bruising the boy’s head. No nature documentary was ever as sentimental about a whale as Rust and Bone is about Ali. Even before Stephanie’s accident, the film marks him out as a hunky alternative to her weaselly boyfriend (the picture delights in seeing Ali humiliate him, and in Stephanie witnessing and registering that fact). He exists to complete the lives of the vulnerable; whether hoisting his son onto his shoulders, or giving Stephanie a piggyback into the sea after her double amputation, he is the noble, savage saviour who makes other people whole.

Audiard is correct to describe his movie as a love story, though the love which predominates is the one felt by the filmmakers for Ali. Like Steve McQueen’s Shame, Rust and Bone is in thrall to the Alpha male it feigns to scrutinise. The camera’s attention is admiring rather than analytical, not least in the hilariously overwrought bareknuckle boxing scenes, which exist only to push the animal/savagery metaphor while lending the film its façade of grittiness. (The way the picture draws Stephanie into the streetfighting sub-plot has to be seen to be gawped at incredulously.)

The director pinpointed in a recent interview the balancing act that runs through Rust and Bone: “There was a specific problem with this film which we saw often during the writing: the clash between realism and stylisation. You had constantly to be looking for an equilibrium. If it’s too realistic, it’s boring. If it’s too stylised, you don’t believe it.” Exactly. And I don’t believe it. Not because of the element of stylisation, but because of how the “boring” realism is deployed not to find the truth in the narrative but to smuggle a story no harsher or more authentic than any Saturday night rom-com.

Why does Rust and Bone have to make it so easy for audiences? Its patronising view of human psychology, where people fit together like jigsaw pieces, supplying neatly the parts of one another which are missing, flies in the face of Audiard’s complex past work. It’s the kind of film where a frozen lake exists for one reason only: to facilitate a moment of heartache and tragedy just when the movie needs an extra shot of poignancy. We’re used to provocations, ideas and ambiguities from Audiard. With this latest film, he merely throws us one bone after another.

"Rust and Bone" opens on 2 November.