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Oscar bait

James Searle

Jacques Audiard
Rust and Bone
Why Not Productions
2 November
2012 (UK)






What does it mean to be powerful? Can brute strength be reconciled with restraint and grace? Is it better to be independent or co-dependent? What kinds of control and autonomy do we value the most? The characters of Rust and Bone, the new film by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped), are absorbed in these questions. The answers may not be of much surprise to the audience, but it is still a pleasurable and rewarding journey watching the characters find them.

The idea of ability and disability runs through the core of the film. As has been well publicised in the movie’s marketing, about half an hour in the female protagonist Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) has her lower legs amputated following a tragic accident at a water park, where she works as a killer whale trainer. Of course, from here onwards the plot trajectory is more or less predictable: following initial shock and refusal to cope with her new wheelchair-bound state, Stéphanie eventually discovers that her own personal resolve and the understanding she finds in her new friend Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) give her a new kind of strength that grows to replace and supersede the physical ability she lost. What is surprising, however, is that Stéphanie is not really the film’s focal point.

Though her disability is never trivialised, Stéphanie concludes her emotional journey substantially before the movie comes to a close. Rather, it is Alain’s less materially obvious problems of power and control that the film lingers on the most. Alain’s physical strength is almost terrifying: his hulking, gargantuan frame looms over the screen. The film spares none of the brutality of the underground fighting scene Alain becomes engrossed in, or the pleasure he and Stéphanie take in the violence. But while Alain’s physical ability is almost unstoppable, his control in other areas of his life is constantly wavering. Beyond being unable to hold down a legitimate job, Alain’s selfishness and immaturity are constantly taken out on his sister and his son Sam (Armand Verdure).

Having fled to France from Belgium after Sam’s mother used him as a drug runner, Alain seems almost incapable of dealing with anyone beyond Stéphanie on a reasonable level. Sam disappears from the film for enormous periods of time, and when father and son are on screen together their relationship is characterised by intense frustration, bordering on violence. When he’s not in the ring or engaging in casual sex, Alain exerts no meaningful autonomy in his life. Of course, just as Alain aids Stéphanie, by the film’s end Stéphanie is able to begin to help Alain learn that true strength comes from self-control and restraint—and the support of someone who loves you—as much as it does physical force.

Even given the film’s refusal to over-dramatise Stéphanie’s disability, one would be forgiven for wondering from the above what really distinguishes Rust and Bone from the legion of other prestige pictures that flood into cinemas every autumn. Indeed, the film’s plot is standard Oscar bait, and this is emphasised through some overt though effective emotional button-pushing in the film’s latter third. However, what makes it stand apart from the pack is not its thematic content so much as the competence of presentation.

The film’s lead performances are straightforwardly terrific. Cotillard shows us all of Stéphanie’s hurt and devastation without veering into soapiness. Schoenaerts, already a rising star on the continent, delivers what may be his breakout performance. And the refreshingly unmannered Verdure delivers the latest in a series of excellent 2012 child performances. Moreover, Audiard’s direction is absolutely exquisite throughout, rejecting melodrama and sentimentalism whilst for the most part avoiding gratuitous flashiness (a few needless slow motion shots aside).

Audiard is the kind of director who knows how to get across a story directly and effectively. While he’s capable of some stunning images—an early set-piece following whales through the water; a dazzling shot of Stéphanie bathed in light at the beach—like his protagonist things improve immeasurably when he shows restraint. The moment when the camera holds steady as Stéphanie wakes up after her accident, the audience aware for just a few seconds before Stéphanie that she’s lost her limbs, is incredibly powerful. The film is a reminder of why these prestige pictures are so common: when put together properly, they really are scintillating.

James Searle is reading for an MPhil in Political Science at St Anne’s College, Oxford.