Rebuilding humanity after workplace horror


Rust and Bone (MA). Director: Jacques Audiard. Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts. 122 minutes

The past year has seen the arrival of a number of excellent films that deal with the realities of physical infirmity. Films such as The Sessions, Amour and The Intouchables feature able-bodied actors portraying characters who experience disability due to genetics, age and accident respectively. They are remarkable for their central performances but also for their exploration of the imperfect human responses of the other people in their lives.

Rust and Bone belongs to this list but is the most difficult to categorise. It divides its time between Stéphanie (Cottillard), a whale trainer from a theme park who loses her legs in a workplace accident, and Alain (Schoenaerts), a single father and fighter who becomes her confidante. His story is as prominent as hers, if not more so. The contrast between them makes for an optimistic but not mawkish reflection on flawed humanity.

When Alain first encounters Stéphanie she is able bodied. She suffers a physical assault at a nightclub where he works as a security guard, and he intervenes to rescue her. He is tall and powerful, and having thus played the chivalrous knight his physicality is from the outset central to their interactions. It can be used to threaten too: he sees Stéphanie to her home, where he proceeds to intimidate her boyfriend when he questions his presence.

Stéphanie is also physical, though in a way that is surreal rather than brutish. Prior to her accident, there is a scene where she joins colleagues on a platform before the whale pool and 'conducts' the massive beasts to perform for an audience. Her graceful hand gestures seem to control each twirl and leap. There is an element of illusion to this, as the circumstances of the accident prove. Each of us shapes but is also shaped by our environment.

The film follows Stéphanie from the accident and its outcome through her early, draining rehabilitation. Alain re-enters her life some time later at her invitation, and arrives to find her now living alone, wheelchair bound and with her previous vibrancy curtailed by depression. He coaxes her out of her home and into the sea to swim. She begins to come out of her slump. As their friendship intensifies, she revives. They begin a sexual relationship.

Alain is a complex character, often well meaning but insensitive. On the one hand his affair with Stéphanie is shown to restore and affirm her dignity. The film's sex scenes highlight the physicality of the act, particularly how Stéphanie's confidence in her own changed body flourishes through it. But Alain neglects the emotional dimensions of the relationship, and in one scene humiliates Stéphanie by hooking up with another woman in her presence.

As a father, too, his good intentions don't stack up. At the beginning of the film he is travelling by train with his young son, to live for a time with his sister and her husband. When the boy is hungry, Alain gathers discarded food from among the carriages. There is something tender as well as unsettling in the manner of making and sharing this meal. At other times Alain is seen to willfully neglect the boy, and to be overly rough in his disciplining him.

All of this is bound up with the film's uneasy consideration of Alain's masculinity, which is associated with his physicality. Some women are drawn to his innate fierceness, including Stéphanie. She begins to accompany him to the illegal fights that are his best source of income, and is shocked and thrilled by his ferocity in conflict. His pugilistic brutality foreshadows the power of body and will he'll later bring to bear in the face of another tragedy.

Alain's career as a fighter suggest new possibilities for her, too: she has a fierceness and tenacity of her own, and could help him better channel his animal gifts. Just as Alain had a reviving effect on her, so she has a taming effect on him. This is what sets Rust and Bone apart from the other films mentioned above. Really it is a film not about disability, but simply about two humans who help each other overcome the kinds of obstacles humans face. 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Marion Cotillard, Jacques Audiard, Matthias Schoenaerts



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Existing comments

Good to see a film about real French people and their gritty lives in situtions which are both oppressive and restorative. Not another nonsense story set in Paris populated by the rich and the empty-headed.

Sam | 04 April 2013  

I saw the trailer of this film, Tim, and, not having grasped much of what it was about, was quite put off by it. I'm grateful for your review with the fuller picture it gives. Again I appreciate your exploration of the film's complexities and your fine moral discriminations. Thanks for what you do too.

Joe Castley | 04 April 2013  

Interesting that the female character is a trainer of whales, rather than say, a factory worker. That's flippy realism for you. Sounds like an interesting film.

Penelope | 05 April 2013  

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