by Angelo Muredda On paper, the most troubling thing about Rust & Bone is the suggestion, right from the title, that we're in for a yarn about maimed bodies that go bump in the night, grinding their way into oblivion. You have to give some credit to Jacques Audiard--who's otherwise taking a decisive step back from A Prophet--for going surprisingly easy on the figurative potential of a love story between Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer turned double-amputee after a rough day on the job, and Ali (Bullhead's Matthias Schoenaerts), a brutish security guard and distant father who moonlights as a back-alley boxer. Based on two short stories (it shows) from Toronto-born author Craig Davidson, the film puts itself squarely in the specious Paul Haggis tradition of the crisscrossing tragedy but keeps the stakes pretty low much of the time, mostly sparing us the usual tortured hymns about how we're all connected at some primal level. As a disability film, a problem genre that finds little middle ground between triumph-of-adversity celebrations and euthanasia apologies, it's also fairly attuned to mechanical matters that usually lie outside the bounds of melodrama. Consider Stephanie's insurance-paid apartment, a smartly-organized space for a wheelchair user, down to the widened doorframes and easily-accessible washer and dryer. Ephemera counts for something.
But it's hard to reconcile that specificity with the banal lows to which Audiard frequently sinks. The limit case is surely a shot, both lovely and laughable, of Stephanie returning to the site of her accident, dead centre in the screen as she pats her orca friend through glass while her metal prostheses poke out of her swimwear. That far, no farther; while there's something touching about an image so removed from irony, once Stephanie emerges from a van some minutes later to rescue Ali from a beating by flashing her divine artificial leg, we've officially crossed into gauche country, and there's nowhere to go from there but child imperilment. (Guess what comes next.) Rust & Bone isn't the horrorshow it could have been, but past a certain point, its emotional prods yield only titters. Programme: Special Presentation