For most of Rust and Bone, Marion Cotillard plays a legless woman. Though the corporeal deficiency is a hardship for the character, Stéphanie, an orca trainer whose limbs are amputated after she is attacked by a whale, it is a boon to the actor. There is nothing like a disability to garner respect for one’s performance skills. Daniel Day-Lewis earned his first Oscar as Christy Brown, a writer and painter whose cerebral palsy denied him control of anything but his left foot. With no foot at all, Cotillard’s Stéphanie joins the pantheon of physically challenged characters who populate The Sessions, The Intouchables, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, among other recent films about the triumph of the will over the frailty of the body. And Cotillard — who in 2007 won an Oscar as Best Actress for her role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose — is utterly convincing as an audacious young woman who courts danger in a seedy night club and a marine theme park. Her rehabilitation as a paraplegic is assisted by a bouncer at the club. Her amazing performance alone makes the film worth watching.
The bouncer, Ali, bounces from one part-time job to another. His five-year-old son Sam in tow, he has made his way south to the beaches of Antibes, scrounging and shoplifting. His sister Anna, who has not seen him in years, is not ecstatic when Ali and Sam suddenly show up and move in with her, especially when Ali neglects his son. As played by Matthias Schoenaerts, Ali is a brutish, macho narcissist who gets his kicks from kick-boxing and casual sex. He prides himself on being “OP” — operational, always ready for an obliging bimbo but resistant to intimacy. Director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) focuses his film on the unlikely coupling of a hedonist and the victim of severe trauma. Moved at first by curiosity and pity toward a woman without legs, Ali befriends Stéphanie, helping her with household chores and carrying her in to swim. Sex with her at first appeals as a kinky complement to his continuing encounters with full-bodied women.
What develops is entirely predictable and sentimental. Stéphanie takes control of Ali’s messy life, eventually even managing the savage improvised boxing matches that earn him more than his wages as a security guard. Suicidal Stéphanie finds a purpose, and raffish Ali finds redemption through the love of a good woman. With its images of body stumps, flexing muscles, and grinding flesh, Rust and Bone is a very physical film about the limitations of living only in and for the body.
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Dir. Jacques Audiard; writ. Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on stories by Craig Davidson; feat. Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts (R)
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