"Rust and Bone" helmer Jacques Audiard enjoys a reputation head and shoulders above that of the guys who made "The Intouchables," another French import screened in American theaters this year. But that cheerfully manipulative fairy tale about the unlikely bonding between a rich quadriplegic and his earthy Senegalese minder came to mind during "Rust and Bone," Audiard's much shrewder film about the rehabilitation of mismatched lovers respectively handicapped by missing limbs and a deficiency of humanity.
Edging into "Intouchables" territory, Audiard massages our emotional responses with an all-too-practiced hand. Even his mix of socio-economic "realism" with soap opera feels calculated, an unconvincing facsimile of the raw authenticity that made his Oscar-nommed "A Prophet" (2010) so compelling. At bottom, "R&B" is a Gallic tearjerker about the existential fall and ascent of two good-looking "cripples." By dwelling on the hand-to-mouth lives of a beleaguered French underclass, Audiard tries to toughen up -- and validate -- the sentimentality of his material.
"The Intouchables" was saved from terminal corniness -- and offensive racial stereotyping -- by charismatic actors (François Cluzet and Omar Sy) who played it straight, rarely stooping to the level of the script. Similarly, it is star power that elevates "R&B"'s often shamelessly schematic narrative: Marion Cotillard (Oscar awarded for "La Vie en Rose") and Belgian comer Matthias Schoenaerts ("Bullhead") command our rapt gaze from start to finish. Their very different styles of physical performance claim frame space as effortlessly as that of the great orcas that Cotillard's Stephanie trains.
In one breathtaking close-up, we grasp how totally Stephanie identifies with and is sustained by the power of kinesis and physical grace: The sensuous curve of her cheek dominates part of the screen, perfectly duplicated by the hugely arching flank of a whale. She's all in, body-wise: Her physicality lights her up, whether she's moving her hands to make the whales dance at a Sea World-type attraction, or "working up" men in bars. She likes to be watched, glowing seductively in her own skin.
One night, after provoking a bar fight, Stephanie gets a ride home with a bouncer named Ali whose impenetrable machismo impresses her, especially when he casually cows her live-in boyfriend. A working-class stiff, he's lived in close, financially tight quarters with his sister since rescuing his little boy from his druggie mom. In contrast to Cotillard's long-limbed elegance, Schoenaerts' bruiser is lumpen, dense and heavy, unreflective and devoid of empathy. It's bare-knuckle boxing that animates this beautiful brute, makes him swell and burn with orgasmic triumph.
When Stephanie loses her legs (faultless CGI throughout) in a horrendous accident with a spooked whale, she falls into despair. Grounded, what does this once-leggy "showgirl" have to live for? Enter Ali, who gets her back in the water -- she's like a joyous, quicksilver fish -- and later provides satisfying sex on demand. Secure in his own hide and animal appetites, Ali regards Steph's damaged body matter-of-factly; carrying her on his shoulders or making the beast with two backs, he draws her out of killing stasis. Soon, she's up on prosthetics -- true to form, she flaunts her steel limbs -- getting off on Ali's no-holds-barred fights. Once, when he's down and almost out, she walks into his sightline, to "work him up" as she once did men in bars.
Beauty may have regained her footing, but her Beast remains emotionally unevolved. So Audiard contrives for him a rite of passage -- underwater, where Stephanie lost her mobility. In art, the use of water as a transformative medium -- traditional locus of symbolic death and rebirth -- should be fluid, spontaneous. Here, it's insistently obvious, premeditated to the max. We can see Ali's penultimate plunge into human feeling coming from a mile away; it's so baldly telegraphed, we have time to mentally beg the director not to go there.
"R&B" is full of free-floating visual flourishes -- blinding shafts of sunlight, arty shadows -- calling attention to surface style but generating no particular significance. Cotillard's performance (already trailing Oscar buzz) remains skin-deep, feelings passing over her expressive face like ripples on a pool, the wellspring of her soul never rising to view. But one shouldn't minimize the pleasure of contemplating Cotillard and Schoenaerts, graceful forms a-swim in cinema's fluid medium.
Intriguingly, Audiard's tacked-on sappy-happy ending may be only
superficially "beautiful." With a little deconstruction, this feel-good scene of
family reunion devolves into a divisive composition, glass partitions separating
character from character. It recalls the screen-spanning wall of glass that
earlier separated legless Stephanie from her whale familiar, swimming freely in
blue space. "Rust and Bone" leaves us wondering whether anybody -- even movie
stars -- can ever really get out of his/her own skin.
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Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.