I knew what Rust and Bone was about going in, so I didn’t take any of its events in the movie as a surprise. Now I understand that some plot points may be considered spoilers, so out of sensitivity I will warn the reader that I am going to outline and discuss the basic premise of the movie. If, like me, you’d heard the plot discussed already, it should in no way impact the emotion of the film, but it could be equally powerful to go in blind.
Ali (Matthias Schoenarts) is a divorced father who scrapes by swiping expired food from the supermarket back room and fighting in underground matches. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a whale trainer at the European equivalent of Sea World, and she’s just another pretty girl he meets at a club one night - frankly he knows she’s too good for him - until there’s an accident at the marine park. Stephanie loses both her legs during a whale show accident, and she reaches out to him at her lowest point during recovery when she’s just given up.
The synopsis sounds like Oscar bait but Rust and Bone avoids any “look at this performance, she really has legs but she’s acting like she doesn’t have legs, ACTING!” baggage. While it’s always a fine line, there are many extraordinary films about people overcoming injuries most audiences would prefer not to think about. Rust and Bone may not quite be The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but it is one of those moving films exploring strength in these personal tragedies.
The visual effects are phenomenal. It’s particularly striking because they not only remove Cotillard’s legs, but they have graphic love scenes with the visual effect. Now we all know how they put her in green socks and film background plates so they can remove her legs in the computer, but how do they do that when the background is Schoenarts’ back moving up and down on top of her? And it’s vital to the movie that they sell this effect, because we have to believe that she’s moving forward with personal relationships, adapting them to this injury.
The relationship between Stephanie and Ali is natural and not forced. It seems like qualities that are deficiencies in his other relationship actually benefit Stephanie. You could say he’s emotionally unavailable, but that means he’s incapable of pity because that would be an emotion. Ali’s relationship with his son is more typical of well meaning but incompetent borderline deadbeat dad stories, but when Stephanie basically becomes his fight promoter, there’s something we haven’t seen before. I mean, name me another movie where a double amputee becomes an underground MMA fight promoter. Okay, name me two.
Now I’m going to say something that’s going to sound like an easy joke, but please let it sink in, continue reading and give it as much thought as I put into whether or not to include this section. Marion Cotillard is still beautiful without legs. Laugh it up, get it out of your system, and now let’s move on.
It is an important observation because not only is Cotillard a glamorous icon (who has no problem putting on extreme makeup for roles like Edith Piaf), but her character Stephanie is a woman who is also used to a certain attention, and having a certain power over men. At least she can pick and choose who she wants to be with, but anyone facing this kind of injury is going to be faced with a question of how he or she will look to the opposite sex. The people who look away are easy to deal with. They’re not worth a concern, but how about sympathetic people? Can a person look at you with even the most open mind without at least a little shred of pity? Nobody wants pity. It is in the interest of looking at a human being as a complete person, including all the attraction one might feel, that I make the above observation.
A lot will also be made of Cotillard appearing so stripped down, as far as not wearing makeup when she’s holed up in her recovery room, and how beautiful she still looks in her most raw scenes. That’s a whole other issue that there’ve been decades of books and documentaries about so I can’t add much in a paragraph here. But yes, it is brave for an actor to appear natural and raw (and relevant, it is at the character’s most despondent state), because some hater somewhere is going to say, “Ha! Look! She’s not as pretty as when she’s made up!” Well, that critic is wrong, but regardless, the perspective should be, “Look how pretty she is without all this nonsense makeup. Now shouldn’t we do away with all the ridiculous makeup and photoshopping the rest of the time too?” So yeah, that’s what I got out of the amputated whale trainer movie.
Now that I’ve expressed my serious appreciation and personal reflection on Rust and Bone, I do still like to have some fun. I’d like to declare Rust and Bone is the double amputee MMA fight promoter movie of the year. I’m not saying it’s the best double amputee MMA fight promoter movie ever, but it’s definitely top five.
Follow Fred Topel on Twitter at @FredTopel.