Extreme Tragedy Meets
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), takes Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) for her liberating first swim since her accident. Photo: Roger Arpajou Why Not Productions
Jacques Audiard’s reputation as one of France’s most original, hard-hitting movie directors is sure to be enhanced by his latest offering, De Rouille et d’Os (Rust and Bone), which was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. This new film shares a number of characteristics with his last great success, Un Prophète: both focus on central characters whose past is left mostly hazy, and both largely steer clear of sentimentality and are unwavering in their depiction of violence.
All resemblances end there, though, as the setting of De Rouille et d’Os is far from the closed prison world of Un Prophète. The story revolves around Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a single father who arrives on the Côte d’Azur with his five-year-old son and moves into his sister’s garage, and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca whale trainer in a SeaWorld-type show, whom Ali meets while working as a nightclub bouncer. Soon afterward, Stéphanie is involved in a terrible accident at work and loses both of her legs.
Audiard’s fascination with the limits and limitations of the body is on display throughout the film, but never in a voyeuristic way. The manner in which the disabled body is placed at the forefront of the screen makes one realize how often movies depicting disability shy away from realistic portrayals. The scene in which the gruffly inarticulate Ali matter-of-factly offers to have sex with Stéphanie to see whether she can still experience sexual pleasure is both unflinching and strangely moving.
While Stéphanie has to endure the uncomprehending or pitying gaze of others (in one excruciating episode, a man chats her up in a nightclub, only to apologize when he sees that she is disabled), she, by contrast, views others’ bodies in an unsentimental light. She is transfixed, for example, by the battered and bloodied body of Ali as he takes part in clandestine fights to earn money.
Schoenaerts is magnificent in his portrayal of Ali, whose repressed aggression only occasionally surfaces, while Cotillard shows herself to be the most versatile actress around: it is almost impossible to think that this is the same person who played the Oscar-winning part of Edith Piaf in La Môme a few years ago.
Although the movie is 20 minutes too long, Audiard has once again achieved a work full of memorable images. The ballet-like dance of Stéphanie with the orca whale that caused her accident is both beautiful and touching. Only the ending of the film feels a little contrived and somehow too neat. De Rouille et d’Os may not achieve quite the worldwide success of Un Prophète, but it certainly deserves it.
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