"Qu'avez-vous fait avec mes jambes? (What have you done with my legs?)" cries Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a young woman in the 2012 French film "Rust and Bone." Stephanie has become something rarely seen in a feature film, let alone as a female central character: having lost both her legs in an occupational accident, Stephanie is a cinematic double above-knee amputee.
"Rust and Bone" is an unconventional melodrama: at its heart is sanctimony, yet the film has received positive reviews for being "edgy" and "fearlessly emotional" (Turan). It may well be the only commercially released film which positions a female amputee in a central role, and in so doing, brings the general public at once into the world of the amputee and the complicated dynamic of female disability. The film has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards in the categories of Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actress for Marion Cotillard. It is, along with "Amour" and "The Untouchables," one of three internationally praised French films released in 2012 which all deal with themes of disability.
The historic role of the cinematic amputee has been based on stereotypes of what an amputee "should" be in the popular imagination: a tragic yet uplifting male figure who has lost one or both legs, often while fighting for his country. Indeed, the recent Stephen Spielberg film "Lincoln" contains a scene in which the 16th president visits wounded soldiers in a military hospital entirely populated by amputees, including double amputees. Hollywood's most garish illustration of the stereotype, the 1994 social fantasy "Forrest Gump," portrays Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) first as a tragic victim of war, then a shaggy-haired drug addict, and finally as a clean-shaven veteran with fiancée in hand proudly displaying his prosthetic legs. 1 The image of the female amputee, however, is far less defined. Sadly, director Jacques Audiard chooses to portray Stephanie in the most simplistic stereotypical ways while at the same time completely ignoring fundamental realities of amputee rehabilitation.
No doubt inspired by the tragic death of a killer whale trainer at Sea World in Florida in 2010, the filmmakers present us with cinematic tragedy fifteen minutes into "Rust and Bone." Stephanie works at Marine Land as one of several trainers instructing Orca whales to swim in unison. One day, one of the whales crashes onto the platform where Stephanie is standing, plunging her violently into the water. Audiard closes the scene with a dramatic silhouette of Stephanie floating motionless as the color red fills the blue water at the latitude of her legs.
What follows is an unforgiveable litany of vignettes toggling between unrealism and sheer melodrama. It begins with the image of Stephanie awakening after surgery without the impact of receding anesthesia; indeed, she is lucid to the point where she can easily prop herself up and climb out of bed, only to realize her legs have been removed. Cuddled by a sympathetic nurse on the floor of her hospital room, Stephanie screams the words: "What have you done with my legs?" From that point, the audience is treated to all the presumptive melodrama of the newly disabled. Calculated images fade in and out: the blank face, the depressed demeanor, the suggested suicidal tendencies (as a nurse removes a knife from Stephanie's hand). Perhaps the most absurd omission is the film's total lack of attention to the realities of post-operative amputation, wherein the missing limb can still be felt with varying degrees of sensation and discomfort. Phantom pain may in fact continue long after the patient's immediate rehabilitation, and nowhere later in the film is this reality ever approached by its storytellers.
We then move on to prosthetics. A brief scene in which Stephanie is being cast for new legs by a helpful (male) prosthetist informs us that there are now "electronic knees that can think for themselves" and that some prosthetic feet can be worn in high heels because "it's important for women." With not a single illustration of this new amputee working with a physiotherapist, learning to walk in parallel bars and dealing with the enormous challenge of being a double above-knee amputee (the vast majority of amputees are single, below knee), "Rust and Bone" does not merely gloss over the realities of post-operative amputee rehabilitation but chooses to ignore them entirely. The fundamental reality of learning to walk on prosthetics is never illustrated or described. Even in subsequent dialogue, Stephanie never reflects on her first days of physiotherapy.
In her new accessible, health-insurance-covered apartment, Stephanie calls Ali, whom she had not seen since the accident. On the beautiful beaches of the Cote d'Azur, Stephanie begins a process with her voluntary attendant of being seen publicly as a disabled woman. At first in her wheelchair, she is carried to the beach from the pedestrian walkway by two men. Ali carries her directly to the water, where she removes her shirt and subsequently is returned to the beach on piggy back by Ali. This image is in fact the photograph which has become the theatrical poster of "Rust and Bone": a disabled woman assisted by an able-bodied male.
Somewhere in between getting around on her wheelchair and walking with a cane on two artificial legs, we are finally treated to the inevitable scenario of a disabled woman confronting her sexuality, or in this case, her lack of sex. Stephanie admits she has had no intimacy since her surgery and is unsure of her own sexual function. "I don't know if it still works." We can only assume her boyfriend in Act I has left the theatre. Ali has no hesitation in offering his services for a brief bedroom rendezvous.
What gives "Rust and Bone" a genuine uniqueness is its depiction of a (newly) disabled woman's experience of sex, particularly that of an amputee. Stephanie deliberately puts her prosthetics under the bed. Is she ashamed of her legs? "No kissing," she instructs Ali. Is she scared of that level of intimacy? With no discussion of STDs or unwanted pregnancy, the couple utilizes no condoms or hesitancy. The cinematic impression of a double amputee with long residual limbs engaged in sex is a striking one that stays with the viewer. Ali holds Stephanie's stumps through their episode. This erotic encounter will not be their last. Was her first post-amputation sexual experience good for Stephanie? "It's hard to know after one time…yeah, it was good." And through this relationship with Ali, Stephanie acquires a new relationship with her body. Perhaps no moment in this journey is as striking as when she chooses to have the word "RIGHT" tattooed to her right stump—and again, we are given a sexual cinematic impression when we see her with her clearly visible tattooed stump as Ali holds it and her.
But is she really comfortable and proud of her body? "Don't look at me like this," she tells Ali as he awakens to see her naked on the floor, literally crawling to the bathroom without using her wheelchair. A scene at a bar in which Stephanie drapes her jacket across her lap to hide her skirt and the prosthetics beneath it shows her being approached by a potential sexual contact. He withdraws once he realizes her disability, saying "I couldn't have known"—in response to which Stephanie throws her drink, glass and all, into the man's face. This scene is problematic in a number of ways. The creators of "Rust and Bone" appear to have no understanding or appreciation of the reality of disabled women being targeted as easy sexual prey, let alone the fetish that some men have regarding amputee women. For Stephanie not to experience being sexually objectified by strange men is a testament to the fact this story is a male-centred narrative.
In staying true to is melodramatic intention, "Rust and Bone" offers little complexity in its depiction of the reality of the amputee woman. It ignores and minimizes the enormous physical challenges of the double amputee. Stephanie is not, however, portrayed as a one-dimensional character. She confronts Ali on the nature of their relationship, refuses to be pitied by those around her and does not let her disability stop her from being active or even returning to the place of her accident. But as one of the few, perhaps the only mainstream film ever to portray a female amputee as a central character, "Rust and Bone" fails to effectively educate its audience on the realities of amputation as well as the unseen impact, both physical and social, of this sort of disability.
Where the film does succeed is in demonstrating the positive impact of sexual empowerment in the context of disability. Stephanie and Ali's coupling becomes a statement to her self-esteem. By manifesting herself sexually with someone who does not objectify or belittle her, Stephanie succeeds in her ultimate rehabilitation: that of her own self-respect and self-empowerment. In this way "Rust and Bone" succeeds as a positive statement of disability, albeit at a woeful cost of melodrama in the time leading up to it.
- Turan, Kenneth. "'Rust and Bone' Defines Romance in Its Own Way." Los Angeles Times. 6 Dec. 2012. Web. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/06/entertainment/la-et-mn-rust-and-bone-review-20121207