I fired the narrator because he became cumbersome. He was always intruding on my stuff. Maybe one day, if I’m feeling nice, he can come back. Moving on….
Have you all heard of that movie that’s coming out (and is out in some places) called Rust and Bone? You know, that one about Marion Cotillard as a woman who loses her legs?
Well, here’s the thing. That’s not what the movie is actually about. I didn’t know much going into the theater, but all the posters seem to focus on Ms. Cotillard. Now that I’ve browsed Youtube for the trailers, I see that they focus on her too. I didn’t particularly want to see the Rust and Bone as it looked a bit melodramatic and uninteresting. I buckled when I got tickets to see her give a talk and thought, “Oh, well, I should probably check out that movie that she’s here to talk about.” So I was a bit biased against the movie, I’ll admit.
But damn, was I in for a surprise. First off, this movie isn’t about Stéphanie, Marion Cotillard’s character. I mean, it is to some extent, but the narrative arc is more about Ali, played by a guy I’d never heard of called Matthias Schoenaerts. I want to say he was so good that I’ll remember that name, but there’re too many vowels.
So what is this movie about then? Well, it’s about Ali, played by my good friend Matt. He’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger-sized man that goes with his son to live at his sister’s place. They appear homeless at the start of the film–no hitchhiker will pick them up, so they get on a train and eat whatever food they find on the floor–and Ali picks up odd jobs once he gets settled. He eventually becomes a club bouncer and there he meets Stéphanie, who is fighting off some drunk prick. Ali separates the fight and takes Stéphanie home, where he leaves his number (in front of her boyfriend, by the way). That would be the end of that if it weren’t for a horrible accident that leaves Stéphanie without legs from the lower-thighs down. Ali and she become closer and closer as Ali must learn to be a better father and lover, and Stéphanie must come to terms with her new-found handicap.
But as a film professor might say, that is the plot and not the story. I guess that’s kind of true. This movie is really about the ways we define ourselves as men and women, and how those definitions can–or even must–interact in modern times. That’s right, folks. It’s about gender! Betcha didn’t see that one coming, eh?
So what am I talking about? First, let me paint a picture of what these two characters are like and what they do:
Ali is a massive man, a former boxer, who liberally has sex with strangers and struggles to raise his child without screaming and even hitting. He works jobs like security guard, bouncer, and bare-knuckle kick boxer He doesn’t give much of a damn about other people, although he does try to love his son. He also cares about Stéphanie, but struggles with the concept of monogamy.
Stéphanie is a killer whale trainer that helps put on those shows that places like SeaWorld do. She likes to dance and feel men gazing at her, but she loses her legs. This accident causes her to lose a significant chunk of her life and sense of self. Ali is so unabashed and unselfconscious that she takes a liking to him.
Alright, good? Good. So we have these two characters that are, at the start of the film, at least partial representatives (to some extent) of masculinity and femininity. But then there’s a crisis: Stéphanie loses her legs and thus a large part of her life (job, ability to dance, self-confidence) and she falls into depression. She thinks that she can no longer exist as she did, as a very feminine and strong woman. So she calls Ali, not in a “I’m a weak woman and need a strong man” way, but in a “I’m miserably bored and you helped me out once” way. He takes her to a beach and asks if she wants to swim. He has zero tact, by the way.
So Stéphanie is reasonably annoyed because she just lost her legs, which I hear are useful for swimming, no less in an accident at a marine park, or whatever places like SeaWorld are called. But when she sees Ali shrug off her annoyance and go for a swim, she’s impressed by his lack of social anxiety. He’s not just masculine in a physical sense, but also an I’ll-do-whatever-the-hell-I-feel-like way, and she’s impressed by this. So she decides to get into the water. She strips down completely and enjoys the sensation of swimming again, entirely uncaring of anyone that might see her. In this scene we see Ali’s masculinity interact with Stéphanie’s stunted femininity, but the two don’t clash. Instead, one enhances the other, and this shows how the interaction of these generally opposite extremes can benefit each other.
This is the part of the story that kindles their soon-to-grow relationship, but this instance isn’t unique. When Stéphanie describes how she used to love the way men looked at her (she almost explicitly references the “male gaze”, for all you film theorists), Ali casually suggests they have sex so that she can see how the accident has affected her in that regard. She’s taken aback by his forwardness but decides sure, why not. She’s comfortable with Ali because he’s not smooth, shy, awkward, or any of that. He just is. So they have sex, and both seem to enjoy it plenty. Again these two extremes benefit from interacting with each other.
But so far we have a lot of Ali’s masculinity aiding Stéphanie’s femininity. Surely if this movie is commenting on the interaction between the two, then there needs to be some reciprocity? Well, lo and behold, there is! Remember how I said Ali is a bare-knuckle kick boxer? Well, he doesn’t do it professionally. It’s like those videos online where a group of dudes form a circle and the guys in the middle beat the piss out of each other. It’s brutal to watch, and if any of you are familiar with the director Jacques Audiard’s previous film A Prophet, then you already know that he can film violence effectively. The scenes where Ali fights strangers are intense and practically showcases for his hyper-masculinity. But he really starts making some bank out of it when Stéphanie becomes the bookie, or whatever the person is called that runs the bets. She’s amazed by his fighting and is damn good at managing it.
But her assistance in that sense, while important, isn’t as major as Ali helping her regain her sexuality. One of the best scenes in the film is where Ali is getting the absolute snot kicked out of him. His eyes glow this bright, pale blue as the other guy has him pinned down. Just when we think Ali’s done for, Stéphanie comes out of the car–she’s had to stay in there for most of the fights because, as she’s told, women aren’t allowed–and walks toward the ring of screaming men. Ali sees her and, in some stir of confidence and something else that I couldn’t quite figure out, he breaks out of the hold and wins the fight. It might sound cheesy the way I describe it, but the scene is powerful. Stéphanie’s warmth and encouragement help Ali, her femininity interacting with his masculinity to make both of them stronger. Also, his continued success in these fights, probably directly attributable to her support, lands him gigs in professional matches.
So we have a lot of individual scenes where the two basically work together on XYZ, and that’s well and good, but it’s not really enough, is it? Sure, it’s interesting, but it doesn’t feel great. The scene that really sticks out comes at the end and it provides the perfect symmetry for the film. Ali is trying to reconnect with his son, who was taken away by his sister because he smacked the kid’s head on a table in anger. He’s also gotten into a major tiff with Stéphanie and has kind of abandoned her without saying a thing.
So Ali and his son go out for a day in the woods, then go to play on the ice. As the big guy takes a bathroom break, the kid falls through the ice. Ali searches for him and eventually sees him unconscious under a section of the ice. That’s when Ali starts punching the ice with his bare hands, bloodying and breaking the knuckles. Eventually, somehow, he breaks through the ice and saves his son just in time.
But now he’s got two busted up hands, which aren’t particularly good for fighting. He suffers a great injury to the parts of his body that he needs most for his profession, just like Stéphanie did. In one of the most emotional scenes, Ali calls her up in shambles, admitting that he really needs her in his life. He realizes that together their extreme personalities benefit each other. They both enhance in each other stereotypically gendered traits and thus allow them to be themselves, but also moderate the negative aspects, such as Ali’s inability to properly raise his son.
So what does all this mean, anyways? Does Audiard want us all to live by gender stereotypes, or does he think masculinity and femininity are bad unless they’re balanced by each other? I don’t think it’s either of those things, really. I think he’s saying we can embrace these qualities in ourselves, both the good and bad, but we as human beings benefit from other perspectives and from sharing ourselves with other people. Gender, masculinity, and femininity need not be dirty words, and while this film doesn’t reach into the territory of transgender or post-gender society, it does tell us that in this age we can still embrace qualities typically considered masculine and feminine while also moving past them. These characters are meant to be extremes, in that sense, as extreme as…rust and bone? I’m not smart enough to figure out how to do a title drop on this one. Sorry, guys.
So, uh yeah. Anyone left, here? I think next week I’ll go for something a bit more light-hearted. Maybe I’ll bring some more pictures along, too. Anyways, if you haven’t even considered Rust and Bone, I recommend giving it a shot. Don’t believe the trailers. This is a film with beautiful cinematography, powerful performances, and surprisingly deep themes. Even if one of the most important scenes has Katy Perry’s “Firework” in it. I mean really, come on? She has so many better songs than that.