French director/screenwriter Jacques Audiard’s latest feature Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os) is a remarkable film in several respects. Nearly the first thing that impresses itself upon the viewer is how palpably it conveys the gritty reality of working-class life in contemporary recession-ravaged Western Europe – something that most Americans don’t normally get to see in the movies, where France is still largely portrayed as a romanticized confection. As we meet the male protagonist Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), he is assuaging the hunger of his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) with scraps of fast food discarded by fellow travelers on a train, and stealing a camera to hock for money to make it the rest of the way to the home in Antibes of his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero).
All that we discover of the reason for the penniless father and son’s flight is that Sam’s mother was using the boy as a drug courier, but it quickly becomes clear that Ali has been drifting from job to job for a long time since his golden days as a prizewinning boxer. He hasn’t seen his sister in five years, and she’s not particularly thrilled to take him in: Anna herself makes a meager living as a cashier in a big-box store where the management is looking for excuses to fire people, and her husband works intermittently as a truckdriver.
Much of the film’s action unfolds in and around Anna’s cheesily furnished apartment, where the only concession to luxury is a tank of tropical fish. It’s a telling detail, evoking the not-yet-extinguished yearning for beauty in the heart of one woman resigned to a life of hardship. For Rust and Bone is a tale of damaged people and their struggles to reinvent themselves after fortune knocks them off their feet one more time.
Those feet become literal in the case of Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), whom Ali escorts home after she sparks a brawl in the nightclub where he finds his first gig as a bouncer after moving in with Anna. Stéphanie comes from a more bourgeois background, with supportive family, better education and a good job as an orca trainer at a Marineland show in the Côte d’Azur resort town, but her world collapses around her when one of her whales deviates from its programming. And that brings us to the second remarkable aspect of Rust and Bone: It sets a new standard for filmcraft by demonstrating that movie producers can devote their entire special effects budget very effectively to applications of the new science of CGI that aren’t about aliens, robots or spectacular action sequences.
Yes, this is the movie in which Cotillard – Best Actress Academy Award-winner for personifying Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, and a nominee for Screen Actors’ Guild, Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards in this current vehicle – spends most of her time legless below the knee. The seamlessness of the technology is quite breathtaking: Even in quite explicit nude sex scenes and full-on views of Stéphanie’s patched-up stumps, there is no visual cue whatsoever that what we’re seeing isn’t real. It makes one wonder how future generations will tolerate classic movies of the past whose tacky special effects reflect the cinematic limitations of their times.
Most remarkable of all in this film, even in a year in which the industry has provided us with enough strong female leads to populate the Best Actress Oscar nominations two or three times over, is Cotillard’s performance – and not just for how much she makes us believe that she’s really hobbling around on prosthetic legs. Stéphanie is not the most verbal of characters, and we don’t get enough of her backstory to know why she’s already hard and cynical even before her horrific accident. But the subtle play of changes in Cotillard’s face and posture speaks volumes about her internal journey from dissatisfied disco queen to suicidal amputee to confident woman willing to take on the world again, on her own terms.