Fun fact: "Rusty Bones" is Judge Clark Douglas' nickname.
Love and courage appear in many forms.
"What have you done with my legs?"
Facts of the Case
Alain (Matthias Schoenarts, Bullhead) is a nightclub bouncer who has recently been tasked with serving as the sole guardian of his young son (Armand Verdure). Alain's been struggling financially in recent times, so he moves in with his estranged sister Anna (Corrine Masiero, In the Beginning) for a while. As time passes, Alain finds balancing work and fatherhood a much greater struggle than he imagined it would be.
Stephanie (Marion Cotillard, Inception) is a professional Orca trainer who works at a local marine tourist park. During one of the ceremonies, a terrible accident occurs and Stephanie ends up losing both of her legs. Frustrated and bitter, she struggles to find purpose in life as she learns to live with her disability.
Rust and Bone tells Alain and Stephanie's story: how they met, how their lives continued intersecting and how they changed each other.
At a glance, Rust and Bone looks like standard-issue Oscar bait, doesn't it? Come on, it's the inspirational story about a woman learning to live again after losing both of her legs. If that's not an awards-friendly story, I don't know what is. But here's the thing: it's really good. And it's not just good in a standard-issue, Oscar-bait-y sort of way. It's a complex, thoughtful, challenging story that observes two self-absorbed people forced to re-examine themselves after a series of major setbacks. I completely expected emotionally manipulative contrivance and what I got instead was something painfully honest and thoroughly rewarding (which may actually be the reason it didn't earn any Oscar nominations, after all).
I should have known better than to expect something run-of-the-mill from writer-director Jacques Audiard, who previously gave us such rich works as the exceptional crime drama A Prophet and the exceptional The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Together with co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain, he took two unrelated short stories penned by Craig Davidson and fused them together (changing a host of details along the way, including major plot elements and the sex of one of the main characters). Though the two stories differ a great deal, Audiard found a number of compelling thematic threads between them and uses those threads to form the core of his story. Sometimes human beings need to be broken before they can even begin to think about what they might need to fix.
It's not that Stephanie and Alain are bad people. When we first meet them, they seem like rather ordinary folks. It's just that when life pushes them, they don't push back very gracefully. Stephanie has grown accustomed to being in the spotlight and being the most attractive person in the room at any given time—a fact she has exploited quite frequently. When her crippling injury pushes her to the sidelines, she suddenly discovers that what enjoyment she had previously gotten out of life was purely surface-level. Meanwhile, Alain responds to his job difficulties and overwhelming parenting responsibilities with explosive anger—a response that tends to exacerbate his problems. These two sad, brokenhearted people don't have much in common aside from the fact that nobody else really cares about them. They don't really care about each other all that much, either, but the fact that they're willing to be in each other's company for lengthy amounts of time seems like enough.
Eventually, the two begin participating in some rather unusual rituals. Stephanie worries that her injury may have ruined her ability to enjoy sex, so Alain volunteers to help her test that theory. The two begin a sexual relationship free of personal emotions or complications; she's attempting to rediscover (or perhaps even uncover) her sex drive and he's just passing the time. When Alain finds himself fired from yet another low-paying job, he decides to put his raw muscle to use in the world of underground fighting. Stephanie ends up accompanying him to many events in which a lot of blood is spilled and a lot of large bills are passed around. After a while, they begin to feel like a peculiar old married couple who skipped right past the early stages of passion and went ahead to slogging through daily routines. At one point, things threaten to turn sour when Alain (who has made it clear that he has no plans to be monogamous) picks up another woman in Stephanie's presence. She draws the line with understated firmness: "We're going to have to have some manners."
One of the things I love about Rust and Bone is that its inspirational moments feel so genuine. The movie doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the challenges these characters face (and indeed, some of those challenges are pretty stomach-churning—particularly a startling moment in the third act), but it never turns into phony cynicism, either. There are indeed moments of joy, redemption and happiness, and those moments work tremendously well because the movie never makes them seem like an inevitability. Much credit goes to Cotillard and Schoenarts, who fully inhabit these people and never strain for dramatic effect during their big scenes. The former received most of the praise (all of which was quite deserving) due to her star power, but both actors turn in remarkably strong work. There are so many ways in which this film could have taken an easier, more predictable path to the finish line, and it avoids them time and time again.
Rust and Bone (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that shines both during the visually rich marine park sequences and during the shadowy, intimate late-night scenes. Detail is satisfying, blacks are quite deep and shadow delineation impresses throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track does a fine job of highlighting the film's terrific soundtrack, which blends a subtle score by Audiard's usual collaborator Alexandre Desplat with an appealing mix of English-language songs from Bruce Springsteen, Bon Iver and even Katy Perry. The generous supplemental package includes an audio commentary with Audiard and Bidegain (in French with English subtitles), an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, some deleted scenes, a visual effects breakdown, some brief "On the Red Carpet" interviews and a trailer that presents the film as precisely the sort of phony inspirational drama Audiard and co. work so hard to transcend. Le sigh..
Rust and Bone is one of 2012's best films, a movie that observes its rich characters with tenderness and honesty. The Blu-ray release looks good, sounds good and comes with a stellar supply of bonus features. Highly recommended.
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