French import Rust & Bone — a late-2012 film arriving in local theaters this week — is the year's second sexually frank film about a protagonist negotiating a disability and the second one to better its premise on the strength of an exceptional lead performance. Unlike The Sessions, which featured John Hawkes as a man living in an iron lung who seeks out a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity, Rust & Bone's concerns aren't limited to the subject of discovering — or, in this case, rediscovering — one's sexuality in the face of physical complications. Like The Sessions, the lead here — French actress Marion Cotillard — was denied the Oscar nomination that might have boosted her film's box office and general profile.
Cotillard, who won the Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie en Rose and followed it up with a series of supporting turns in high-profile English-language films such as Public Enemies, Nine, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises, is back in the spotlight here as Stephanie, who is battered at a nightclub and taken home by the club's new bouncer, Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), who invites himself in to ice his swollen hand, mean-mugs Stephanie's sketchy boyfriend, and leaves his number.
This meet-cute of sorts remains unresolved for a while. Stephanie returns to her job. (Which inspires questions such as: Do the French really do the wave at whale shows?) Alain returns to his two chief activities — bad parenting (he's got a young son) and amateur street-fighting (he had a short-lived pro career). But tragedy strikes Stephanie at a show when an orca leaps on the deck and she ends up losing her legs, her later loneliness inspiring her to give Alain a call.
This unlikely romance bears unexpected fruit thanks, in large part, to Cotillard, whose performance is soulful and believable but de-glammed and never mawkish. The moment when she wakes up in a hospital and discovers her fate is tough but believable, as is her return to normalcy — her first post-accident swim, her negotiation of sex, the simple act of sorting through her closet and discarding high-heels. All of these are grace notes, as is, unlikely as it seems, solo wheelchair dances to "Love Shack" and Katy Perry's "Fireworks."
Meanwhile, in a year full of 3-D, action blockbusters, and The Hobbit, Rust & Bone probably features the most impressive and affecting CGI of the year.
The direction, from Jacques Audiard, who helmed the impressive 2009 prison drama A Prophet, feels overstylized at first, with lots of slow-motion and dissonant use of music, both pop songs and traditional score, but the film finds its footing in the heart of Stephanie and Alain's relationship, midway through, before perhaps running astray again with a final plot turn.
Rust & Bone
Opening Friday, January 18th
Studio on the Square