Rust and Bone (France, 2012)January 01, 2013
When Rust and Bone tells a story of a woman's recovery from a devastating injury, it hits all the right notes, traveling a path that is poignant without being mawkish and triumphant without being saccharine. However, when it chronicles the life of a self-absorbed drifter and petty boxer, it stumbles on more than one occasion. Of course, these two tales intersect, sometimes for the better and sometimes not so. The most disappointing and ultimately least satisfying aspect of Rust and Bone is the understated ending which offers closure in such a perfunctory fashion that it leaves one feeling that something profound is missing once the end credits begin rolling.
I have a great deal of respect for French writer/director Jacques Audiard, whose previous outings include Read My Lips and A Prophet. Taken as a whole, Rust and Bone isn't as good as either of those movies; it's easy to feel a little frustrated with Audiard's latest precisely because certain scenes and extended passages are damn near perfect in their depiction of human emotions and states of mind. Unfortunately, the production as a whole doesn’t maintain that same high level. It's a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.
The two principal characters in Rust and Bone are very different people whose paths intersect one night at a nightclub. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is working there as a bouncer and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) becomes involved in a fracas that breaks out. Ali helps clean her up, drives her home, and makes the rather inelegant comment that she's dressed like a whore. He gives her his phone number in case she ever needs him, but doesn't really expect a call - except one comes, months later after Stephanie has lost both legs in an accident and is looking for someone... anyone... with whom to connect. They quickly become friends, with Stephanie finding appeal in the way he refuses to coddle her because of her injury and Ali enjoying spending time with someone who doesn't make demands of him. Sex enters the picture and then emotions become involved, but perhaps only on Stephanie's part. She has obviously fallen for him but his callousness becomes apparent when he picks up a one-night stand while hanging out with her.
Rust and Bone attempts to balance screen time between Ali's mundane story and Stephanie's more compelling one. Stephanie, an orca trainer at a Sea World-type park, is injured on the job (the specifics of the accident are left ambiguous). After an operation to amputate both legs above the knee, she sinks into depression then recovers with Ali's help, regaining self-confidence and learning how to walk using prosthetic legs. Ali, on the other hand, is a selfish asshole who dumps his five-year old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), with his sister and rarely considers the feelings of others when he makes a decision. The only time he shows a scintilla of respect for another person is when he's with Stephanie, and even that is inconsistent.
Marion Cotillard is one of a select group of actors who has shown the capacity to bounce back and forth between major Hollywood productions (she's a favorite of Christopher Nolan) and smaller foreign efforts. She's almost always the best thing about any movie in which she appears and that hasn't changed with Rust and Bone. Cotillard's performance is the primary reason why the scenes with Stephanie are so much better than the ones without her. No disrespect to Matthias Schoenaerts intended - he provides strong work as Ali - but no one else in this film rivets the camera's attention like Cotillard.
It could be argued that Audiard cannily stacks the deck with numerous scenes of legs and feet early in the proceedings. In fact, the movie fades in on an image of Sam's legs walking. Later, as Ali is driving Stephanie home following their initial encounter, his gaze gravitates to her legs. Cotillard's performance, however, is so good that we don't need the additional emphasis upon what Stephanie has lost. The special effects that produce the illusion of stumps that end above the knee are expertly accomplished. In most cases, I couldn’t determine if prosthetics, body doubles, or CGI were being employed.
Rust and Bone handles some powerful emotions with tact and skill. It also delves into areas that many less honest films might bypass, such as what sex is like for (and what it can mean to) a double amputee. There's a lot of nudity in Rust and Bone and none of it seems gratuitous. The rawness and urgency to the sex is at odds with the glamorization often associated with bedroom scenes. Numerous scenes are likely to evoke a strong response in many viewers: Stephanie's post-accident "encounter" with an orca, when she "instructs" the animal for one last time; her wheelchair "dance"; and the scene when the sight of her walking on prosthetic legs energizes Ali and enables him to win a fight.
The ending, however, is a letdown. It feels rushed with an admission that, although understandably motivated, doesn't ring true. The brief epilogue, designed to sew up dangling plot threads does little to provide satisfaction. A big, happy Hollywood conclusion isn't needed but there's a sense that the audience deserves something a little more complete than what's offered here. Still, endings aren't everything, and Rust and Bone contains enough solid, emotionally true material to make it easy to forgive its missteps. See it for Marion Cotillard's amazing performance and Stephanie's complex and credible character arc and accept the other, lesser elements as necessary to advancing the story.
Rust and Bone (France, 2012)
Subtitles: In French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Jacques Audiard & Thomas Bidegain, based on a story by Craig Davidson
Cinematography: Stephane Fontaine
Music: Alexandre Desplat
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