Rust and Bone helmer Jacques Audiard enjoys a reputation head and shoulders above that of the guys who made The Intouchables, another French import screened in American theaters this year. But that cheerfully manipulative fairy tale about the unlikely bonding between a rich quadriplegic and his earthy Senegalese minder came to mind during Rust and Bone, Audiard’s much shrewder film about the rehabilitation of mismatched lovers respectively handicapped by missing limbs and a deficiency of humanity.
Edging into Intouchables territory, Audiard massages our emotional responses with an all-too-practiced hand. Even his mix of socio-economic “realism” with soap opera feels calculated, an unconvincing facsimile of the raw authenticity that made his Oscar-nommed A Prophet (2010) so compelling. At bottom, R&B is a Gallic tearjerker about the existential fall and ascent of two good-looking “cripples.” By dwelling on the hand-to-mouth lives of a beleaguered French underclass, Audiard tries to toughen up—and validate—the sentimentality of his material.
The Intouchables was saved from terminal corniness—and offensive racial stereotyping—by charismatic actors (François Cluzet and Omar Sy) who played it straight, rarely stooping to the level of the script. Similarly, it is star power that elevates R&B‘s often shamelessly schematic narrative: Marion Cotillard (Oscar awarded for La Vie en Rose) and Belgian comer Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) command our rapt gaze from start to finish. Their very different styles of physical performance claim frame space as effortlessly as that of the great orcas that Cotillard’s Stephanie trains.