(Dis)connection and posthuman sensibilities in Rust and Bone
As Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) stands in front of the thick glass of the tank, she appears a small, slim figure set against the vivid blue of the water. She smacks the open palm of her hand firmly against the glass. She waits and, after nothing happens, she repeats the action somewhat impatiently. Out of the void-like depth in front of her an orca appears, seemingly made weightless by the water, powerful, majestic. It follows her hand as Stéphanie strokes the glass, separated from her by only a few inches. The orca follows the hand signals of its former trainer, rolling on its side, nodding its head, before Stéphanie sends it away again. She watches it go, still and calm. Rather than portraying a moment of connection between whale and trainer, this shot in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os, 2012) serves to emphasise the gulf that exists between human and orca. Stéphanie is not bonding with this whale – she is returning to face the same creatures that not long ago caused the horrific accident that resulted in the amputation of both of her legs.
Rust and Bone was released the year before the documentary Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013). The orca in this film can be seen as a stand-in for Blackfish's focus Tilikum, a whale who has been implicated in the deaths of three people at SeaWorld, including trainer Dawn Brancheau during a show in 2010. The filming of the orca scenes in Rust and Bone took place at Marineland, a park in France that also holds captive orcas. Cotillard was required to watch the whale show and work with real life trainers in preparation for her role as Stéphanie. Of this experience, she would later say that, "I tried to hold myself from throwing up and crying . . . I don't understand how human beings can take these magnificent animals out of their environment and put them in swimming pools and play with them like Muppets."1 Whilst Rust and Bone sometimes appears ambivalent in its position on orcas in captivity, the above shot and scene expresses a decidedly posthuman and post-anthropocentric view of these creatures, attempting to move beyond the humanist conception of the animal as "the necessary, familiar and much cherished other of anthropos."2 In doing so, it questions the notion of the alleged superiority of humans. Rather than presenting the orcas as subordinate other, both films take an anti-exploitative position and seek to reposition the interrelations between animals and humans, though their approaches naturally differ. Where Blackfish is (necessarily) straightforward in its address, Rust and Bone is subtler in its methods.
This film is primarily a story about broken, emotionally distant people, struggling to form meaningful relationships. The film follows Stéphanie and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and the unlikely (but, at the same time, utterly natural) bond that develops between them. Ali is a boxer who works part-time as a security guard; he struggles with his aggression and the sudden responsibility of being a father to a young son he has barely spent time with. He and Stéphanie meet before her accident whilst he is working as a bouncer at a nightclub. He breaks up a fight in which she is involved, where she is struck in the face. As a result of his intervention his hands bruise and swell. These are but the first examples of bodies in Rust and Bone being beaten, bloodied and broken. Able and disabled bodies, human and animal bodies, adult and child bodies – the film constantly juxtaposes and displays the spectrum of bodies and bodily relations, whether they are having sex, brawling or simply in play.
In a film about people struggling to form personal emotional connections, the above shot of Cotillard in front of the whale tank stands out. It is a strikingly beautiful shot, of course; the sight of the orca floating as if weightless in front of Cotillard in the centre-frame is mesmerising. We see the orca respond to her hand signals and we recognise its intelligence – but the lack of understanding that humans have for these mammals is made abundantly clear. The mood could not be further from the scene that sees Stéphanie leading the animals for a cheering crowd in the orca show, before things go wrong. When the accident occurs it happens almost faster than we are able to comprehend, until we see Stéphanie's silhouette, shot from underneath, floating in the water, dark clouds of blood surrounding her. In this shot now, Stéphanie's whole body is framed against the body of the orca, no longer the able body she inhabited at the beginning of the film, but nor does she want or expect pity. Part of why she becomes close to Ali is in his refusal to offer this pity.
Although it would be understandable, there is no sense of blame or anger from Stéphanie, something Cotillard is able to express through her body language and physicality alone (we do not see her face). Rather, she exudes sadness, regret and, perhaps, understanding. Of course this whale did what it did. What else was it meant to do? It spends its life trapped in an artificial environment, constructed by humans, where it was never meant to be. Watching the orca materialise out of the unnatural blue of the tank, appearing as if conjured out of nothingness, it at first appears as if Stéphanie is the one in control. But the stark contrasts between the noise of the show and the quiet of this moment, of joy and sadness, large and small, different bodies – Stéphanie before the accident and Stéphanie after the accident – tells us something else. This shot displaces that illusion of mastery and hierarchical order that humans supposedly hold over the animal "other."