Rust and Bone (2012, directed by Jacques Audiard)
I freely admit it- I'm a sucker for melodrama. From Douglas Sirk to My So-Called Life to Carlos Siguion-Reyna, if the emotions portrayed on screen are inflated you're probably going to hook me in at least a little. The trick with the melodramatic style, of course, is walking that fine line between exaggerated and grotesque, between engaging and campy. Get it right and you generate tears in your audience; get it wrong, and the results is eye rolls.
Rust and Bone is a film where you'll probably want to bring a lot of kleenex along with you.
Ali (Bullhead's Matthias Schoenaerts) is a single dad who's taken his son away from his mother, giving dark hints that the boy was being used as a drug mule. He's no saint himself though, stealing food on a train and a camera in town to keep the duo going until they get to the home of the sister he hasn't seen in years. Anna and her husband take them in, but Ali has trouble holding up his end of the bargain. He's a fairly negligent dad, preferring to bang chicks at the gym rather than pick Sam up at school. He briefly lands a job as a bouncer due to his boxing background and, while breaking up a fight, meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca trainer at a nearby Seaworld-style amusement park. Stephanie has issues of her own, and while there are sparks at their first meeting nothing much comes of it.
Then Stephanie has an accident and loses both of her legs at the knee. As she tries to rebuild her life she reaches out to Ali, who by this time is knocking out teeth in backyard brawls as a French Kimbo Slice. Without even really knowing why, he lets her in, and a rough, cautious romance starts to bloom.
One of the most amazing things about Rust and Bone, for me, is the way Audiard fuses old school Hollywood melodrama with modern filmmaking. The basic setup is essentially An Affair To Remember, only Cary Grant has been replaced by Kirk Douglas from Champion, but there is nothing retro about this movie in large part due to the two outstanding leads. Cotillard is her usual magnificent self, with pain and the will to survive dancing in her eyes and across her face like shadows, but Scheonaerts is no second fiddle. His Ali is exactly the self-centered man-child you expect and yet he manages to invest Ali with a surprising innocence. When Ali hurts the people in his life he does so out of ignorance and carelessness, not malice. And the mirroring of Ali's unintentional efforts to help Stephanie find herself again with her own very intentional efforts to help him grow up give their relationship incredible depth.
The other element that makes that relationship so interesting, of course, is Stephanie's disability. This is the single best depiction of a person handling the loss of their limbs I have ever seen on screen. Granted, it's not a subject that comes up much in movies, but between the absolutely seamless digital effects used to remove her lower legs (or, eventually, replace them with prosthetics) and Cotillard's total investment in a character struggling to deal with her new physical reality and prove to herself that she is still intact and whole, Rust and Bone is a spectacular triumph just for that one achievement alone. It's the kind of showy role that would normally seem like total Oscar-bait, but Cotillard's performance is as far from, say, Pacino's cartoonish scenery-chewing in Scent of a Woman as it's possible to get. Stephanie's journey through her personal crucible feels achingly real, and the moment when she finally regains herself - ludicrously and gloriously punctuated by Katy Perry's Fireworks - is as uplifting a scene as you will see in any movie this year, and probably this decade.
Of course Stephanie's journey is only half the movie and Ali's crucible is just as hellish as hers, although for different reasons. But Schoenaerts' desperate despair is just as compelling as Cotillard's when he hits bottom, and his own rebirth just as believable. Throw around all the young Brando comparisons you want with regard to this performance; Schoenaerts earns them all with an intensity and physicality maybe only matched in recent years by Tom Hardy in Bronson or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin.
Rust and Bone manages to tell a larger-than-life story with all the trappings of classic melodrama in a grounded, realistic way, and the result is simply magic. Find it, watch it, and have a good cry. You won't regret it.