Rouille et d’os, De (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), having had experience in boxing and kickboxing, gets a job as a bouncer in a nightclub. A fight breaks out between a man and a woman, the former calling her a whore as the latter ends up on middle of the floor with a bleeding face. Concerned for her safety, Ali drives Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) to her place, only to be met with a scowling and jealous boyfriend. Ali gives her his phone number just in case she needs someone to talk to. They will meet again some time later when Stéphanie no longer has her legs.
Though not the most tightly constructed drama, “De rouille et d’os,” based on Craig Davidson’s short stories, is loyal to the fact that life is often messy and unbalanced. Sure, the story can be summed up and interpreted as an odd romance between a fighter and an amputee, but the circumstances that surround them demand more urgency on the gut level. It is more accurate to consider the film as a story about two people who happen to meet each other at the right time.
Stéph and Ali are interesting together as when they are apart. Emphasis is placed on Ali’s physicality, not just in the things he does, like pummeling someone’s face into bloody mush or using his limbs to knock an opponent off-balance, but also in his stature, how wide he is even when he is simply standing there. In contrast, Stéph, at least initially, underscores a lack of dominance. There is a frailty about her—an emotional and psychological withering—the anger, frustration, and denial she goes through after learning that both of her legs—and perhaps a chance to live a life of normalcy—are gone.
Because they are so different, when they are within physical reach of each other, it is a most fascinating concoction. It is almost as if they feed off one another’s strengths. The careful screenplay by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bigegain is key in allowing us to understand the mutualism between the characters without coming off trite. When Ali decides to help Stéph, we do not discover a layer of sensitivity in him but are simply reminded of it due to the early scenes. It is easy to forget someone’s softer side when the person seems most comfortable in violence. Meanwhile, when Stéph is more willing to accept what has happened to her, we are with her in her quiet victory.
The issue of sex is brought up eventually. Stéph wonders if “it,” her plumbing, still works. Naturally, Ali is willing to help out. There is a layer of amusement without touching upon comedy, a welcome change from the heaviness of their circumstances. We have seen Ali engage in sex with other women. He is rough, almost violent (or it seems violent) though in a different arena. Will that approach work for Stéph? Whether if it does or does not, how will their friendship change?
Clearly the point that “Rust and Bone,” directed by Jacques Audiard, wishes to address is that there is a life after losing an important part of us. It may not seem that way for a while but as rust invades metal and broken bone heals, time gives way for an opportunity. The protagonists’ lives are a series of ups and downs, but their story is one that we can choose to believe as hopeful.