French actress Marion Cotillard, who was a surprise Oscar-winner for her performance in La Vie En Rose, is receiving more awards buzz for Rust and Bone. It is the kind of role Oscar loves; she plays a whale trainer who has her legs bitten off, and the film details her rehab process which involves an affair with a muscle-bound single father. The buzz is well-deserved; Cotillard gives a nuanced and vulnerable performance. But the film leaves much to be desired. It has all the pieces of compelling drama – a tragic accident, two wounded people finding love, and some quirky, eccentric details – but I was startled by how little it added up to.
While Cotillard’s strong and sensitive whale trainer is a compelling character, she is sadly not the protagonist. That assignment falls to Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), who has recently left his wife after she tried to use their son as a drug mule. He brings his boy to his sister’s home, where he finds work first as a bouncer, then a security guard, and finally as a street fighter. It is at his first job that he meets Stephanie, and while she initially rebuffs his advances, she calls him up after the accident, and they begin a tentative friendship with benefits.
That no particular reason is given why she warms up to him is indicative of the film’s weaknesses. It drifts perilously close to Silver Linings Playbook territory, in which the lead characters are defined only by their traumas. We know little of Stephanie before the accident and even less of her life outside of her relationship with Ali. Something tells me that there is accuracy in this approach; victims of a trauma of this kind often do become defined by it and isolated from their friends and family, at least in the short-term. But the lack of characterization makes her transformation feel rather slight, despite Cotillard’s valiant efforts to inject some specificity into the role.
Ali’s character is more fully-realized, although far less sympathetic. He neglects his son – at times, almost criminally – and cares only for himself. At first, it is unclear what Stephanie even sees in him – besides a kind of teenage fascination with dating a guy who is her polar opposite. It soon becomes clear that her relationship with Ali is her way of re-entering the world and facing her trauma. In some ways, Ali is like the whale who broke her – a wild beast – and their relationship is a test Stephanie is giving herself. Can she survive another round with a wild animal?
But if this is the most emotionally-compelling thread in the story, it is not one that writer/ director Jacques Audiard follows. Ultimately, Ali’s journey takes center stage, and it builds to an emotionally manipulative climax that left me a bit empty. If this had been Stephanie’s story instead of Ali’s, perhaps things would have been different. Instead, Rust and Bone stands as a generic romantic drama. The details may seem different, but its heart is in the same old place.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue