If you’re a film director aiming for critical acclaim, there are better ways to earn it than by prominently featuring Katy Perry in your movie. Yet there she is, screeching her No. 1 hit “Firework” on the soundtrack during several key scenes in French director Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone(De rouille et d’os), including one that features Marion Cotillard doing some killer whale trainer moves that look cooler than anything Perry did in the “Firework” video. And still Rust and Bone is collecting Oscar buzz, which is all the more impressive since it’s in French, with subtitles.
While I continue to ponder Perry’s inclusion in a French film with subtitles, I’m wondering why the Oscar buzz is all for Marion Cotillard, who has scored Best Actress Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations, and is likely on her way to her first Oscar citation since winning in 2008 for La Vie en Rose. I’m not saying that Cotillard doesn’t deserve the praise because, as usual, she does. She works for it, and she works it. She gives Stephanie more shadings than she probably had on paper: Blink and you might miss the character’s subtle thawing after a freak on-the-job accident leaves her without legs, and Cotillard confidently maneuvers the physical demands of playing a woman with stumps where her legs should be.
Stephanie ends up being the opposite of what one might have expected — bitter wheelchair-bound beauty spends the rest of the movie in her dingy flat, shutting herself off from the world — and Cotillard plays her perfectly. I wanted more of her, more of her story, but ultimately, Stephanie is a glorified supportive girlfriend, and Cotillard probably belongs in the Best Supporting Actress running alongside Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Sally Field (Lincoln), Helen Hunt (The Sessions) and likely fourth-time (in that category) nominee Amy Adams (The Master), who received her third Oscar nomination for playing the supportive girlfriend of the title character in the 2010 film The Fighter.
More than anything or anyone else, Rust and Bone is about another fighter, Ali, played by the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who is an appealing mix of primal he-man and brawny softie. Watching Schoenaerts in action I felt like I was watching Tom Hardy’s mixed martial artist from last year’s Warrior in a slightly inferior film. If Schoenaerts were George Clooney, he’d probably be giving Lincoln‘s Daniel Day-Lewis a run for his third Best Actor Oscar.
My biggest problem with Rust and Bone (besides Katy Perry) is that its central relationships — Ali and Stephanie, Ali and his son Sam, Ali and his sister, Ali and himself — are so sketchily drawn that the upbeat ending doesn’t resonate as it should. It doesn’t feel particularly hard-won. We know Ali resents his son, that his sister resents him, and that he and Stephanie are bound to fall for each other, but those threads are all so underdeveloped that we’re never really sure why. When Ali makes his heartfelt declaration during the movie’s emotional climax — a phone conversation that, curiously, is shown entirely from Ali’s point of view, with Cotillard heard but not seen — it seems to come out of nowhere because all the beats of the relationship haven’t played out onscreen.
Still, the film is uplifted by the performances of Schoenaerts and Cotillard, and, despite the presence of Perry, the soundtrack, a combo of alternative rock, electronic dance-pop and Alexandre Desplat’s score. The musical highlight — which, like Perry’s hit, doesn’t appear on the soundtrack being sold by digital retailers — is the Trentemøller Mix of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper,” a song from his 1982 Nebraska album that was once beautifully covered by Cowboy Junkies (on the band’s 1986 debut, Whites off the Earth Now!) and plays here during a sequence that begins with Stephanie buying a new car.
Though these scenes are supposed to belong to Cotillard, she loses complete ownership of them as soon as the music kicks in. But her partial loss are those two minutes’ gain. And if someone is going to steal scenes right out from under you, it might as well be The Boss.
Cowboy Junkies “State Trooper”