Rust and Bone (2012) centers around the horrific discovery of waking up and finding that your legs are gone. It also hopefully asserts that it’s worth going on anyway. The movie is buoyed by a magnificent performance by Marion Cotillard who bravely traverses through anger and grief, bottomless despair, to, if not happiness, acceptance at least.
When we first meet Stéphanie (Cotillard) she’s getting into a fight outside of a bar. The fight is broken up by Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a lowlife who, this week, is a bouncer at the club. He drives her home and chides her for the way she dresses, insinuating that the spurned lover who hit her had every right to expect something from her based on what she was wearing. Stéphanie is insulted but thankful for the ride and the protection; she’s equally curious about his candor as put off. He takes her to her house and they part ways.
Stéphanie is a killer whale trainer at a local marine park, and one day one of the whales earns its adjective, leaping onto the deck and attacking Stéphanie. She wakes up in the hospital to find that her legs have been amputated. She is dismayed and suicidal, trying to hide scalpels from her nurses, who are trained to look for that type of thing. Eventually, she’s allowed to go home in a wheelchair, but she’s hardly any less despondent. She reaches out to Alain, who she hasn’t seen since the fight at the bar, and they form a bond. Alain is doing odd jobs while pursuing kick-boxing, which he dangerously practices in a parking lot league that has all the order of a cockfight. They are two people adrift who use each other as a combination of an anchor and a lighthouse.
The movie made me think of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) because of its ailment and rehabilitation narrative, but though it’s set up in the same way, Rust and Bone quickly becomes less about a woman with no legs and more about a romance in which one of the participants happens to be an amputee below the knee. These are flawed people, who wouldn’t seem to have much in common, but they are drawn to each other in spite of their faults. What drew me to the movie, in spite of its faults, was its decidedly unromantic look at the couple. It never pretends that this is a happily-ever-after–type tale, but it’s what these two need right now and the movie isn’t sentimental about it. It’s simply showing two people attempting to make lemonade.
Was I inspired by Stéphanie? In a way, not simply because she learned to live with an extreme handicap, but because she was a movie character who was given the option to be subtly but completely realized. There are no big speeches instructing us what to think, but we are given no alternative but to realize how difficult things are for her. Much of this is due to Cotillard’s performance, which can go from small to huge in an instant but is never over the top. She slyly suggests Stéphanie’s self-consciousness in little movements of her eyes or the way she folds her coat over her legs. There’s a pitiless scene of her putting her dishes away in her home while lying on her side and then she sighs before having to drag herself back to her chair. Despite what’s on the periphery, the movie still has Cotillard at the center and her raw performance makes the movie go. Her legs were removed digitally and their absence more than convincing, but she also had to learn to move as if they really weren’t there, a skill that is tested as Stéphanie is anything but stationary in Rust and Bone.Through it all, Cotillard resists making Stéphanie the object of exploitative pity, even during the hopeful scenes, as when she does her old whale routine for herself in her home or when she returns to the park and learns she can still direct a whale.
These scenes are what dominate our memory of Rust and Bone, but Stéphanie’s rehabilitation is only a portion of the story, often to its detriment. Stéphanie is the emotional center but the movie wants to give us more information than necessary about Alain, who isn’t as compelling. The last act of the movie shows a harrowing scene involving Alain and his son (Armand Verdure) that is dramatic and mesmerizing but narratively stands at a right angle with the rest of the movie, as if it wandered in from the next theater. The movie trades in a certain aimlessness that contributes to its objective documentary style, but it gets out of control sometimes and unravels some of the emotional arc it builds.
I’ve seen a lot of movies about people who become disabled and their road back to normalcy, but I can’t think of one quite as sexually active as Stéphanie. More than a specific story about one woman, Rust and Bone is about the universal need for acceptance and validation. Stéphanie has been cursed with a condition that distances herself from being accepted by some people (there’s a scene in a bar when a man who had been obnoxiously hitting on Stéphanie discovers she is an amputee and offends her even more that is poignant because we side with Stéphanie’s angry reaction, but we also have sympathy for the lothario because we aren’t sure that in the spur of the moment we would have reacted any better) and Alain makes choices that separate him from society, but they both deserve that approval. They find it in each other, maybe not forever, but right now, when they both need it most.