Jacques Audiard’s love story is visually brutal and emotionally turbulent. He pursues themes of power, physical strength and vulnerability by strapping its characters to a rocket, and sending them into the sky with the force of a firework.
One night, Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), an impoverished, single-father of few words, takes Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer-whale trainer, home after she is wounded in a bar-bust up. Several weeks later, Stephanie suffers a horrific accident at work, and is rendered limbless. She reaches out to Alain, who helps her get around, and the two become lovers. To make money, Alain turns his fists to illegal fighting and discovers he’s rather good at it. Stephanie supports him, accompanying him to his fights and getting to know his family, however she becomes increasingly frustrated with his inability to quit sleeping with other women.
Stephanie is every bit the modern heroine here. Cotillard plays her as damaged, fragile: not just physically, but also in her loneliness and her disillusionment with relationships. Yet, she is not afraid to demand what she needs, asserting her femininity with force.
Audiard creates a poetic symmetry by ensuring that Alain is equally vulnerable. Physically, this rests in exposing himself to unpredictable, illegal fighting. Yet, elsewhere, emotionally, Alain is on a path more tortuous. He struggles to express and acknowledge the depth of his feeling for Stephanie and he also struggles in his role as a single-father.
In some ways, De rouille et d’os is, at heart, about single-fatherhood. The scenes where Alain struggles to feed, clothe and meet the basic emotional needs of his son (Armand Verdure) are achingly harsh and moving. Despite Alain’s coarseness, inside he is soft-melting tarmac. Stephanie steps in at just the right time to help shape him into something that can form a road, which takes them both into a new and more positive territory.