Saturday, December 1, 2012
A Failed Attempt at Feminism Impedes Awards Contender "Rust and Bone," Starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts
At its core, there's something very interesting about the small yet much buzzed about French film, De rouille et d'os, which is translated in English as Rust and Bone. Its off kilter premise, which follows the extraordinary love story of an amputated killer dolphin trainer and the lover she befriends during her recuperation, is fresh enough to attract audiences. The lead performances by Marion Cottilard and Matthias Schoenaerts are both layered and beautiful to watch. But where it falters is the latter half of the story (written and directed by notable filmmaker Jacques Audiard of The Beat That My Heart Skipped fame), and the evolution (or lack thereof) of its protagonist and reluctantly drawn heroine.
It's very easy to write a lead female character and call her a heroine, simply because she's a woman and much of the plot revolves around her. But it's another thing for her to actually be a heroine, a character someone can look up to or aspire to become. Stéphanie (Cotillard), a sexy wild animal trainer-turned-bewildered amputee, has all the potential to become that person. But instead her story inches its way toward progression only to become wilted and ultimately eclipsed by the neverending and somewhat unrequited compassion she has for her male counterpart, the weary absentee dad Alain (Schoenaerts).
When we first meet Stéphanie, she's a fierce dolphin trainer who knows her way around a club and literally has to beat the guys off with a stick. She gets into a scuffle outside a club one night, and Alain (who's a bouncer) intervenes and saves the day. He ends up driving her home and icing his now bruised hand. While there, he encounters who the audience could only presume as her live-in lover who shoos him away with his look of death. Right out the gate, Stéphanie's fate is dependent on the men she keeps around her.
After the tragic on-the-job accident, which severed her legs and left her wheelchair-bound, we're left to assume that at this point, by the way things have already been going with her, that she'd just crumble and spend the rest of the movie in tears. A once seductive woman who could get any guy she wanted (or needed) was left alone, crippled and seemingly half the person she once was.
That is, until she recalls her guy-on-retainer Alain, who's moved on from his bouncer days to become a gym worker. That's when Stéphanie's story becomes essentially the betterment of his, which details a completely apathetic dad who's inexplicably careless about his son and everything else in his life (including Stéphanie). He later haphazardly pursues a career as a street fighter. So of course she has to sign on to be his manager, securing herself in his life after several failed attempts to be his girlfriend. Meanwhile, throughout most the movie the audience is left in the dark about Alain's feelings towards Stéphanie. His chemistry with her seems more mechanical and authoritative rather than her more needy desire.
Though Stéphanie's new self-made job finally gives her purpose again, it comes off as another way to get closer to him and fit into his life. It just becomes an exhaustive attempt to create an empowered rehabilitated female character by counterbalancing her with the male character. It's unfair for the character and counterproductive to the shrinking theme in the film--rebuilding a broken woman.
That aside, however significant, Cotillard's portrayal is steadfast and deliberate. Her aggressively passive aggressive approach to the character wrangles over some of the more minor flaws about the way she was written, leaving the end result that much more impressive. And Schoenaerts, as annoying a character as he plays, delivers a unapologetic performance that is punctuated by the movie's single glimmer of nuance. Together the two elevate the disappointing story, but the remains of what they had to work with still permeate the rest of the film.