Rust and Bone is the new movie by French auteur director Jacques Audiard, best known for A Prophet, a crackling prison drama that won a swarm of international awards and was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar in 2010. Rust and Bone is a hard-edged, unconventional love story about two damaged individuals whose romance defies the limits life has imposed on them.
“Each film tends to create its opposite,” said Audiard, who spoke with Below the Line recently when he was in Los Angeles to promote the movie, along with Thomas Bidegain, his co-screenwriter, close collaborator and helpful translator. “After doing A Prophet, a story which takes place in a jail with no women, no love, no space, no light, we wanted to do a love story, one with a strong female character.”
That character, Stephanie, is played by France’s Marion Cotillard, who won an Academy Award in 2008 for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. (She is being tipped now for another possible Oscar nomination for Rust and Bone). Stephanie trains performing orca whales at a Marineland park in Antibes, a resort on the French Riviera. One of the orcas gets out of control and triggers a horrible accident. She loses both of her legs and, after an operation, becomes a double amputee.
Re-entering her life is Ali – played by up-and-coming Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts – whom she first met when he rescued her from a brawl in a nightclub where he was the bouncer. Ali is an itinerant, somewhat brutish boxer living on the economic margins with his five year old son. A steamy and multi-layered relationship ensues. “At the beginning she is an arrogant princess,” noted the director. “When she loses her legs, she discovers new things about herself and can let go.”
The movie is loosely based on a short story by Canadian writer Craig Davidson. The script took Audiard and Bidegain two years to write but Rust and Bone was completed in only four months, from the start of shooting through postproduction. “It was very fast but I enjoyed the process, and sometimes films take far too long to get finished,” said Audiard. One reason for the urgency: the film had to be delivered to the 2012 Cannes Festival and it was set to open in Paris soon afterwards. It opened in theaters here in late November.
“What we were trying to do, with the writing, filming, actors’ performances, editing, music and cinematography was to combine an almost naturalistic realism with its opposite – melodrama, surreal imagery, a heightened experience,” Audiard explained. The challenge was to find the right balance of realism and stylization. “Too much realism would be boring, too much stylization and nobody believes the story,” he noted.
It fell to director of photography Stéphane Fontaine to deliver the varied looks that Audiard wanted. Nearly all of the shooting was done on location. Most of it takes place in the less than glamorous parts of the sun-drenched French resort. Settings range from the touristy show at the marine park, the run-of-the-mill nightclub with its cliché disco lights, to harshly commercialized urban strips and a hospital. “I wanted a very realistic film where a lot of unreal things will happen,” he observed.
Rust and Bone was the first of Audiard’s films to be shot with a digital camera. How did he like it? “Not very much, and Stephane really hated the whole thing,” he responded. “I think he had a problem with how the camera worked in daylight. The image was too hard, and he couldn’t fully control the color temperature. But it worked well in low-light scenes like Stephanie’s bedroom where she and Ali have their erotic sex scene.”
Fontaine has been the cinematographer on Audiard’s last three movies. Most of the other production keys have also worked with him before. The director first met his film editor Juliette Welfling early in his career when he was starting out as an assistant film editor and she had the same job. She has cut all his movies.
Despite his own background, he pretty much gives Welfling editing carte blanche, coming in mainly at the very end. “The choices are really her choices and I use her talent a lot,” said Audiard. “My one requirement is that the first cut cannot be more than 10 minutes longer than the movie.” In addition to her long collaboration with Audiard, she also has credits on notable films including The Hunger Games, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Science of Sleep.
Since most of Rust and Bone was shot on location, the job of Michel Barthélémy, the production designer, was focused on enhancing the varied surroundings. The most work went into creating Ali’s cramped quarters in his sister’s garage where he lives with his son. The cluttered space contrasts with the always sunny exteriors.
Logistically, the most demanding scenes to create and film both involve water. First is the accident when one of the performing orcas throws Cotillard’s character to the bottom of the tank. The second is a frozen lake where Ali’s son is playing when suddenly he falls through a soft spot in the ice and plunges underwater. “We both used real ice and artificial ice,” said Audiard. “And we found small actors to play the boy under the water.”
The film employs deft CGI to create the convincing artificial prostheses that Cotillard’s character wears to substitute for her lost legs, which enable her to walk in the latter part of the movie. The effects were done by Cesar Fayolle, VFX supervisor at Mikros Image in Paris. The adjustments Cotillard had to make in her acting movements, aside from using a cane, were minimal. The CGI was added later.
The scenes with the four orcas provided another kind of challenge. “Marion had to spend more than a week with the whales so they would get used to her and she would feel comfortable as well,” noted the director. “They are trained, but these are big animals.”
The composer of the soundtrack score is the hugely proflic Alexandre Desplat. He has also worked with Audiard since the start of his career. In addition to Desplat’s compositions, the soundtrack also includes songs by Bon Iver, Bruce Springsteen and other rockers.
The song that supercharges the early scenes at the marine park is “Fireworks,” the catchy Katy Perry smash hit. “That was not my choice, it’s the song they actually play at the aquatic park,” he noted. “The whales know it well because they hear it over and over at four shows a day. But Marion found it inspirational.”