Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” was one of several movies this past Oscar season striking a similar note. Often compared with the more loudly acclaimed “Amour” and “The Sessions,” this French-language film starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts is a story of overcoming disabilities and also one that utilizes the “life goes on” mentality.
Ali (Schoenaerts), a muscle-bound Belgian immigrant who dreams of winning international boxing titles, suddenly finds himself in a situation he cannot fight his way out of: he has been left in charge of his five-year-old son, Sam, and the two travel south to live with Ali’s sister and husband near Cannes, France. There, living on expired foods that his sister steals from her grocery store cashier’s job, he gets a job as a bouncer at a club where he meets Stephanie (Cotillard) after rescuing her from a violent dance partner.
Meanwhile, Stephanie has her dream job–training killer whales to perform in musical numbers at Marineland. Shortly after meeting Ali, in the height of her element, an accident during a routine show leaves Stephanie without both her legs. Her horrifying moment of realization alone in a hospital bed is punctuated by her sobs of “what have you done with my legs?” that are repeated an uncomfortable number of times until she thankfully succumbs to sleep.
Once just as intensely physical as the brutish Ali, Stephanie finds herself nearly unable to wake up in the morning, tormented by the loss of her way of life and by the uphill struggle of rebuilding the life she has left over. Remembering his invitation to call him anytime, Stephanie reaches out to Ali who, in a surprising display of rough empathy, is able to coax the shame-ridden Stephanie out of her apartment, gradually reintroducing her to life.
Ali joins an underground fighting ring and Stephanie is fitted for prosthetic legs. The pair are drawn even closer together as they begin having sex, at first as an experiment to see if Stephanie still can, and later as friends with benefits. Together with Sam, they form a cohesive unit, but not a happy family per se. Ali slips into some shady dealing which makes his position in his family tenuous, and eventually costs his long-suffering sister her job and source of food. No matter how many strides Ali and Stephanie take towards pulling themselves out of their misfortunes and past mistakes, “Rust and Bone” proves that they cannot ever be entirely whole again, but maybe it can be okay in this new way.
“Rust and Bone” is a beautiful movie, deserving of praise for its rendering of a believable disabled person’s struggle towards normalcy, rather than that of an unrealistic paragon of virtue and strength. Stephanie is not that great of a person when we first meet her and after her injury, she does not bear up in silent strength, determined to be better than ever. She despairs and contemplates suicide. Once again Cotillard proves herself the brilliant talent of “La Vie en Rose,” combining hopeful vulnerability with a needle-sharp desperation in a performance that is the film’s visceral motivation. It’s only with this darker side of recovery that the success at the end is true to life, and even that success is not quite happily ever after. But a little bit happier is a start, isn’t it?