I can think of no other modern actress as easily able to shroud their performance in impervious empathy better than Marion Cotillard. She first caught the eyes and hearts of audiences in 2006 with La Vie en Rose, her portrayal of Edith Piaf winning her an Oscar and immediately ranking as one of the best performances of all time. Ever since, it seems that most of her starring roles have dealt with playing damaged, soul-baring women, her mastery only heightening with each passing year. I have yet to find a film in which she hasn’t positively put me in a trance — she’s the closest thing we currently have to Gena Rowlands, to Monica Vitti.
Rust and Bone (2012), a weepie with an uncomplicated sense of reality dictating its every move, is a high point in a career consisting mostly of high points. You don’t just watch Cotillard in the film; you are besotted by her, attentive to every single aspect of her performance. So she’s fortunate that Rust and Bone is reflective in its ambitions and characteristics, being unrelentingly bleak, emotionally overwhelming, yet ultimately hopeful. It is directed by Jacques Audiard with kitchen-sink realness in ways rarely stumbled on, unafraid of valiant characterizational developments and plot points that would, in a more mainstream film, seem out of place. But watching Rust and Bone is like watching real life, being messy, exasperating, but totally fascinating.
In essence, the film is a love story, detailing the relationship between Stéphanie (Cotillard) and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts). Ali is a born loser in his mid-twenties, a single father barely able to make ends meet; Stéphanie is an older, emotionally unpredictable orca trainer who is reconfiguring her life after a tragic accident that resulted in the loss of her legs. They are total opposites, one an irresponsible ne’er-do-well who dreams of a career in boxing, the other a victim of circumstance attempting to find a single reason to live. And yet, they’re perfectly right for each other.
Stéphanie and Ali first meet by chance at a club, where the latter is a bouncer and the former is an accidental party to a drunken brawl. Being a decent man, he drives her home, catching a glimpse of what appears to be an unsteady personal life — there, their connection might have ended had their fates been different. But following her horrifying calamity (during a show, one of the whales gets too excited by a treat and crashes the stage, causing the entire platform to collapse and bring Stéphanie down with it), she, having nothing and no one, calls Ali in a desperate venture to find someone to confide in. He accepts, and, despite being a lug who doesn’t have much by way of thoughtfulness, a healing friendship blossoms.
He helps remind her of the smaller pleasures in life, helping her do such taken-for-granted activities as swimming in the ocean on a sunny afternoon, going for episodic walks on the promenade after she is gifted with bionic legs, and, eventually, even providing her with a gift most friendships don’t see: show her that sex with a disability is not as big a deal as she thinks it is. But as Ali shows Stéphanie what it’s like to live again, she supports him too, attending his first few boxing matches and introducing herself to his family. Their friendship (or relationship, depending on what you consider it to be), works therapeutically — if they never found each other, we can only ponder what would have become of them.
Which is what makes Rust and Bone such a haunting film. It throws obstacles at the mundanities of life and questions what it really means to be human, and, by living through Ali and Stéphanie, both remarkably drawn characters, we take our own lives into account and wonder how we’d survive living with nothing, or having it all and then losing everything. Flooring as they are, I love films like this — they leave you reeling from their impact long after the closing credits flash across the screen, resting at the pit of your stomach for years and thus altering your outlook on life for the better.
And I like the little details, too. There’s a wonderful scene, where, following an emotional breakthrough, Stéphanie, sitting in a wheelchair on her scenic porch, blasts “Fireworks” by Katy Perry and dances in a humorous attempt to remind herself of the highs of her now-dead career, where entertaining people was an utmost priority. The film’s most delectable moments come when Cotillard and Schoenaerts are together. We are moved when Ali takes Stéphanie swimming for the first time (a kind gesture from an oblivious young man), tickled by his nonchalant manner of asking her if she’d be willing to have sex with him to see if her erotic passion remains (surprisingly selfless). Onscreen romance is something that ranges from heated to barely there: theirs is sweet and strange, and Rust and Bone is all the more of a visceral experience because of it.
But the film is never easy on us, challenging what we’ve come to know about the genre it defies, which is, arguably, the romantic drama. I can think of no faults within its irregular shell — it’s too raw, too touching, to cast a doubtful shadow. Cotillard and Schoenaerts are momentous. A