What do a paraplegic whale trainer and a bare-knuckle boxer have in common?
To answer that question you’re going to have to watch Jacques Audiard’s emotional 2012 drama that was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. It didn’t win, nor did Marion Cotillard win the Oscar for her incredible performance as Stéphanie, the whale trainer who has a horrible accident and must try to find meaning in her life after losing her legs (Jessica Chastain won for Zero Dark Thirty, the wrong choice in my humble opinion). Matthias Schoenaerts shares the lead as Alain, a terribly irresponsible father and fighter who seems to find much more pleasure in bashing in the face of an opponent than he does spending time with his son. The two give engrossing performances on their own and amp it up even more when on screen together. Their characters are interesting in that they make you want to cheer for them but then continuously frustrate you with their poor decisions and obvious flaws. Audiard puts much care into ensuring that the audience is repeatedly set up to be let down and the actors take care of the rest.
Alain’s nonchalant approach to Stéphanie’s unfortunate situation is what motivates her to continue to enjoy life. Treating her as if the loss of her legs is no big deal, he asks her casually at the beach if she is going into the water or not. She reluctantly agrees and he carries her in. She is rejuvenated after the swim, and gains a newfound sense of enjoyment in her life. In return Stéphanie comes to watch Alain fight and shares in his victories, even at one point becoming his promoter. The relationship dynamic is very well crafted as the two need each other, but don’t necessarily realize how important the other is to their happiness. Alain is much more in the dark about Stéphanie’s importance to him and eventually the two butt heads over the seriousness of their relationship. Alright, I’ll stop with the plot stuff just to make sure I don’t spell out the whole movie. It is important to note, however, that this is a true dual protagonist story, not an easy thing to pull off, especially as effectively as Audiard does.
As will be a trend with any film I watch, I have to comment on the cinematography. The scenes are beautifully and appropriately lit, and with all the ups and downs mood-wise in the film, there is a lot to be conscious of as a cinematographer. Unsurprisingly (I mean, I did mention that this is a good film), the film’s is photography is spectacular. The range of moods required are handled amazingly with everything from shaky-cam point of view shots to include the audience in the crowd that cheers on Alain as he pummels faces in, to claustrophobic underwater shots of Stéphanie’s accident, to dimly lit sexy bedroom scenes, the photography forcefully and discretely draws the audience into the story. Accompanied by the new master of the film score, Alexandre Desplat (sorry Hans, there’s a new sheriff in town) the atmosphere of the film is powerful and undeniable.
Before I get to the end of this thing it’s very important that I mention what I think to be the strongest aspect of this film – its unrelenting realism. It has been a while since I have seen a film that has such a stellar combination of heart, drama, and this sort of “I’m not going to let you off easy” attitude. That last part may seem strange, but the unflinching realism permeates every facet of the story. Yes, the bare-knuckle fighting is brutal, and yes, Stéphanie’s accident and subsequent struggles with the loss of her legs are completely devastating. But where the film really succeeds is in its exploration into the hearts of its characters. While Alain is clearly interested in Stéphanie, it’s not at all for romantic reasons at first, and his selfishness makes him quite a deplorable character in the way he treats his son and his family. Stéphanie isn’t “cured” by her romantic interest in a man (refreshing) and is more or less in a constant state of sadness due to her injury that looks like it might never completely go away. Sounds depressing, right? Maybe, but it’s real. This is where film as a medium has the opportunity, especially a narrative one, to give the audience an experience they can truly draw from, because it focuses on the nature of human beings as we truly are, not how an audience might want to (wrongly) think we are. The reality depicted in Rust and Bone is so true to human nature, so close to being truly authentic, that one can actually learn from it. I’ll leave it to you to decide exactly what you can learn as the experience will likely be different for each individual.
In closing, leave it to the French to make a film that completely blows you away with its beautiful simplicity, while making you feel like you’ve just watched something extremely complex. Be forewarned, you may need to bring a tissue or two when you sit down to watch this one, or at least the back of your hand if you want to wipe your tears away like the tough people do. Also the visual effects used to make Stéphanie look like a paraplegic are incredibly well done (I should really look into how exactly they make a person appear as if they have no legs!), and make for some rather disturbing viewing, but please don’t be deterred! This film really is a force and a heavy dose of emotional realism, something that is greatly lacking in the majority of films put out in the last few years.
Enjoy yourself and let me know what you think. If you have any doubts, watch the trailer below and you should be convinced, it won trailer awards (yes, there are trailer awards).
You’ve Touched Me in a Good Way
Rust and Bone Trailer: