In order to train a wild animal, you have to do two things: one, you establish trust with the animal and two, you show the animal that you are stronger than it. There is a scene in the film De rouille et d'os (Rust and Bone in French) that demonstrates this beautifully. Ali is in the middle of a street fight, and he is taking quite a beating from his opponent. He is down for the count, and they are about to call the winner, when Stephanie steps out of the car that brought Ali to this fight. We see her fake metal legs first, and then we see her face, strong and determined, beautiful and brave. The expression on her face is like metal, rusted but sturdy. Ali sees it, and all the sudden he is up again. Ali goes on to win his fight, inspired by this woman who he knows is strong than he is.
In Rust and Bone (2012), we meet Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). Ali is a disengaged man who finds himself raising his son. He likes to fight for pay and looks for women willing to sleep with him. He isn't close with anyone. He treats his son like an inconvenience, and, currently, he is living with his sister while he works as a security guard. Stephanie, on the other hand, is an orca trainer. She also doesn't seem to have much of a social life, but she seems to really enjoy her job. Stephanie and Ali meet the first time at a night club where Ali is working. He and Stephanie have a chance encounter that doesn't really impress either one of them.
Fate steps in, however, and in a horrible accident with the orcas, Stephanie loses her legs. She doesn't really have a support network, so she calls Ali for companionship.
For whatever reason he comes. He takes her swimming in the sea, and maybe because he doesn't baby her, she enjoys his company. I don't really know his motives. She is the first person that comes to him for help instead of the other way around. They start talking about their dating status, and eventually start sleeping together, although it's not a romantic thing. Ali wants to help her see "if it still works."
Fate steps in again, and there are moments that pull these two apart and together, apart and together. So this sounds like a very simple film. What makes it fabulous, though, is a combination of great acting, the filming itself, and the thoughts above about a wild animal and training them. Stephanie trains orcas for a living. She respects a beautiful beast. She sees Ali for what he is. He is a man with a body that can do damage. He has legs and enjoys the kinesthetic experience of fighting. Part of her job when she trains the orcas is to appreciate their movements and what they can do. Ali is a street fighter and eventually agrees to enter fights where gambling happens. Most women would be appalled. Stephanie is fascinated.
What I love about this movie is how Stephanie is able to change the dynamic of your relationship with Ali through her strength. She could have become just another woman he sleeps with and ditches, but because of her strength he comes to respect, and, eventually, love her. At first, he treats her like a friend with benefits. After her initial shock of losing her legs, she is housebound and spending all of her time at home. He doesn't pity her, but gets her out of the house. Then, a key moment happens. After Ali wins a big fight, they got out to celebrate at a local club and Ali decides to pick up a woman and sleep with her with Stephanie right there.
Stephanie is obviously upset, but instead of whining and complaining about his treatment of her, she approaches him the day after and commands his respect. She says, "If we are to continue, we do it right, with consideration and not like animals." Ali agrees, and Stephanie has won another round with her "wild animal." We know he respects her because he hires her as his manager after the man managing his fights has to take some time off. He knows Stephanie can handle the other "wild animals," too. Stephanie is now a woman to be revered and wanted. She gets a new car and a new tattoo. The other fighters stare after her. Respect is a key component of love, and she builds it, brick by brick, with Ali. I love how she overcomes her tragedy to become a new woman.
The two lead roles do an excellent job. Very little of this story has to be told because it is shown so well. Much is felt and communicated through looks and body language. We know what Stephanie is thinking. Ali does well in his beast role. He has modes for working, fighting, and picking up women. The rest of the time, he is just going through the motions.
The director also uses the camera to show us the light coming through the trees, the sun on Stephanie's skin she first goes outside, and the way her leg feels with her new tattoo on it. This is a very raw and real film. I did cry at the end, just as I do whenever two lost people find each other and understand what they have found.
The film has some violence that could be frightening to children, and a few scenes of sexuality, although not too graphic, in my opinion. This a thinking man's movie, and is a film about relationships that happen in unexpected places when life takes a turn.