While many movies are made from fiction sources, we tend to be most aware of the famous ones: Atonement, Harry Potter, The Hobbit. Having an existing fan base for a story is great for financing and marketing the movie, but it also tends to tie the hands of the filmmaker.
But the fine French film Rust and Bone is an example of a more interesting adaptive process. Take a book hardly anyone has heard of, write a script that uses just the scraps of scenes and characters you need, discard the rest, and no one will wag a finger and say, "That's not the way it was in the book."
Rust and Bone is the title of a collection of short stories by the young Canadian author Craig Davidson and, no doubt like most viewers, I have not read it. Reviews suggest that Davidson's tales of boxers, dog fighters and other lowlifes owe a debt to Chuck Palahniuk, along with the Bukowski-Carver-Crews strain of gutter realism. But, like many a French filmmaker before him, director Jacques Audiard, along with his co-writer Thomas Bidegain, saw in the raw material of North American squalor and crime the possibilities for an expressive, primitive and, above all, cinematic experience.
So we have Rust and Bone, the movie, based on themes and scenes from Davidson's stories but transported to the French Riviera and featuring a wholly invented love story. And with the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts and the much-better known, Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard, it's sexy and violent and touching in all the right places.
Schoenaerts, although not a household name, was seen here last year in the Belgian crime tragedy Bullhead, and as the ex-boxer Ali in Rust and Bone, he sometimes seems to be playing the same character in a parallel universe, a brute who hasn't lost his testicles. In contrast to the doomed, and damned, Jacky in Bullhead, Ali is casual, rough but admirably direct about sex: He fornicates as simply and pleasurably as he eats, sleeps and defecates. (He doesn't have much of a romantic streak.)
We meet Ali as he's broke and hitching south through France with his 5-year-old son, whom he feeds by scavenging and shoplifting. They crash with Ali's sister and her man in a tough community, and Ali finds work as a bar bouncer and security guard. Breaking up a fight at the disco one night, he meets Stéphanie (Cotillard), who trains orcas at the local tourist aquarium. Nothing comes of their first meeting—the contempt and disinterest is mutual. After some unforeseen events, however, the two get back in touch. Together they rebuild their lives—if that's what you can call earning money by bare-knuckled brawling.
There's virtually no plot to speak of—the criminal underworld lurks nearby, but there's no convenient narrative device connected to it. Instead, like a grungy, character-driven 1970s American drama such as Five Easy Pieces or The Last Detail, or a more recent progeny like The Wrestler, we just see a series of lowlife misadventures and a deepening relationship between two damaged, limited, yet oddly passionate, maturing individuals. The fine soundtrack of American rock and pop ranges from the B-52s' "Love Shack" to an apposite use of Springsteen's "State Trooper."
Like certain other European directors, Audiard is a late bloomer. At 60, his reputation has been built on his films of the last decade, from Read My Lips to The Beat That My Heart Skipped to his extraordinary, Oscar-nominated prison epic, A Prophet (a film he may never top). He may be no enfant terrible, but he's one of the most pleasurable European filmmakers to emerge in recent years.
This article appeared in print with the headline "In the gutter, seeing stars."