Eroticising Amputation: Thoughts on Rust and Bone (2012)

Our next Screen Talks will be on Monday 2nd December, 6.30pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Ryan Sweet, a Phd researcher in the Dept of English at the University of Exeter, will introduce Jacques Audiard’s De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone; 2012).

Rust and Bone Poster

Jacques Audiard’s De rouille et d’os (Rust and Bone; 2012) is a film that deals with a number of complex and emotive themes, including the father-son relationship, the struggles of working-class life, the dubious policies of middle management in retail firms, domestic abuse, single parenthood, the animal-human relationship, and, to an extent, the question of whether we should keep powerful and intelligent animals, like orcas, in captivity—many of which we can anticipate based on the trailer alone. Above all, though, as I will suggest in my screen talk, Audiard’s romantic drama is acutely concerned with the practical, emotional, and psychological effects of limb loss and disablement— themselves extremely sensitive topics.

As a researcher working on fictional representations of artificial body parts, I initially suggested giving a screen talk on Paul Verhoeven’s iconic 1987 motion picture, Robocop, a film that’s portrayal of prosthetics is significantly different than that which we see in Rust and Bone. As scholars working on disability in film have noted, Murphy, the hero of Verhoeven’s sci-fi action film, is an archetypal example of a particular type of disabled character that we often see deployed in Hollywood film—the “Techno Marvel”. Like the on-screen portrayals of other characters of this type, the display of Murphy’s hyper-sophisticated prosthetics takes precedence over the effects and implications of his disablement. While Robocop is explicitly evoked in Audiard’s film in a light-hearted exchange between the lead characters—Ali, a boxer, and Stephanie, a former ocra trainer—disablement and artificial-limb use are displayed in a much more realistic light in the latter. Unlike the majority of films that use disability as a significant motif, here we see the day-to-day struggles of limb loss and prosthesis use unreservedly displayed—in a couple of instances we even see how difficult and undignifying going to the toilet can be without the use of real or artificial legs. Though we commonly see disability used in film as a visual sign for a character’s deplorable character, or as a motif that enables a physically or mentally impaired protagonist to appear more heroic for achieving success in the face of adversity, in Rust and Bone we see one woman’s surprising and somewhat unusual response to the psychological, emotional, and physical torment occasioned by double-limb amputation.

A particularly unusual and yet extremely interesting aspect of Rust and Bone is the way in which it eroticises the amputee. As I will suggest in my introduction, this eroticisation can be read to engage with but also to reject a recent cultural interest in the sexual appeal of prosthetics—you may remember from a few years ago the internet rumour that Lady Gaga had opted for amputation “for fashion purposes”! As you will see in this film, prostheses are quickly discarded when sex is on the cards. By drawing the attention of the audience to the film’s use of lighting, shot selection, and close-ups to focalise legs—severed and whole—in the movie, I will raise a number of questions regarding Audiard’s decision to sexualise the amputee. How does the film deal with the loss of sexual self, which often accompanies limb loss? How does one regain libido after experiencing amputation? Are prostheses are turn-on, or should they be hidden from potential sexual partners?

As I will also identify, the film raises some intriguing questions about the role of people with disabilities within the film industry. How can we justify Audiard’s decision to cast an able-bodied actress as double amputee in this film? How, if at all, would this film differ if a disabled actress played Stephanie?

Ryan Sweet is a fully funded PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant based in the Department of English at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on the representations of artificial body parts in literature from 1830 to 1914.

Dickens, Commodities and Objects: Thoughts on Oliver Twist

Our next Screen Talks will be on Monday 18th November, 6.30pm at Exeter Picturehouse. Hannah Lewis-Bill a Phd researcher in the Dept of English at the University of Exeter) will introduce Oliver Twist, the 1948 adaptation by David Lean.  Hannah researches Dickens and the representation of China in his novels through commodities such as tea and silk

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Hannah has written a guest-blog post for us on the film:

The opening of David Lean’s 1948 black and white version of Oliver Twist is bleak, powerful and dramatic: the ragged branches, the fractured shots of the pregnant woman’s face as she struggles to her final destination and the lashing rain are certainly atmospheric and yet are so very different from Dickens’s own opening. Dickens’s novel opens with the workhouse with a soon-to-be expiring mother and Oliver’s entry into the world and workhouse.

Oliver Twist tie-in novelisation, 1948, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum Collection

The story of Oliver Twist is a familiar one and Lean’s interpretation is for the most part faithful. Oliver is born in the workhouse and sent to be looked after by the parish authorities from where he is then sent on to various apprenticeships. He then runs, quite literally, into the Artful Dodger who introduces him to Fagin (Alec Guinness) who, spotting Oliver’s potential, sets about trying to turn him into a successful pickpocket. The plan to enact Oliver’s premature expiration from this world is then also gradually undertaken. I could say more but for risk of spoiling the parts for those less familiar and to maintain the suspense for our viewing at the Exeter Picture House on Monday 18th November I will stop there! It is, though, worth considering what has been left out and why and that is one of the points I will reflect on during my talk on Monday; is there something to be said for cinematic exclusions and do these exclusions add another dimension?

It is sometimes difficult I think to separate the parts of the novel familiar to us because we know them from Dickens from those scenes that are so familiar because we know them from the screen. Indeed does it matter? In my opinion it does. In order for a novelist to continue to resonate culturally and socially it is often helpful for their work to be adapted in new ways to reach new audiences be this through the screen, stage or reimagined through adapted versions of the story. In many ways this version of Dickens’s novel, reconceptualised in this way, heightens an awareness of the cultural concerns in Dickens’s time and also at the time of Lean’s production. Anti-Semitism cannot in this adaptation be ignored. Fagin is arguably the best known character from Oliver Twist and Dickens’s representation of this character is undoubtedly anti-Semitic and so too I would argue is Lean’s. Whilst Dickens never directly states that Fagin is Jewish, his stereotypic depiction leaves us in little doubt of his cultural heritage. Indeed later in Dickens’s literary career upon conversing with some Jewish friends they explained the damage his representation of Jews had done and he was horrified. It was this which led him to create a sympathetic and thoughtfully composed Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend in an attempt to undo some of the damage. The fact that Lean, seemingly determinedly, negatively and stereotypically depicts Fagin is therefore even more problematic. Taking influence from the images created by Cruikshank’s (the man who illustrated Oliver Twist for Dickens) Lean purposefully heightened certain features such as his nose to create a stereotyped Jewish aesthetic. Produced, as this film was, during the Second World War, and the atrocities enacted on the Jewish population in particular, seems a very questionable decision. It did cost Lean as it meant that the film was not released in the US until 1951 and, when it was released, 7 minutes of the film including the questionable representation of Fagin were omitted. The moment we first see Fagin played by Alec Guinness is an uncomfortable moment and an important one for that very reason.

George Cruikshanks, ‘Oliver introduced to the respectable Old Gentleman’, (1838)

Speaking personally for a moment, my own research considers Dickens, China and tea and the way in which commodities function in shaping a cultural consciousness of the world beyond Britain. Whilst a reading of the novel would certainly produce readings of China what is interesting about a reading of the film is the significant role objects play. From the necklace that features so prominently at the start of the film on Oliver’s mother’s neck, the coffins, the signage, the handkerchiefs, wallets, and the jewellery that Fagin collects there is always a cornucopia of objects that support the hidden or more subtle contexts of the cinematic plot.  To an extent the money that is hoarded and exchanged is another object that is significant to the running of the den and London more broadly and, it can be suggested, Oliver becomes the ultimate object of everyone’s desires. This is something that might again be discussed in greater detail when we come together to talk after the film on Monday: what is the effect of these hidden layers to the plot and what can they add to our viewing of the film? For now though I hope to have presented a new twist on both Dickens’s and Lean’s Oliver Twist and left you feeling as though, like Oliver you would like more!

Hannah has written about Dickens and commodities.  She has an essay entitled “From ‘The Great Exhibition to the Little One’ to ‘China with a Flaw in It’: China, Commodities and Conflict in Household Words“ in Mackenzie, H. & B. Winyard (eds), Charles Dickens and the Mid-Victorian Press, 1850-1870 (Buckingham: University of Buckingham Press, 2013).

Read more about Hannah’s research here, and follow her on Twitter: @hlewisbill

Response to Plein Soleil from Jamie Bernthal

Jamie Bernthal is a PhD student in the Dept of English at the University of Exeter, he is researching queer theory and the detective fiction of Agatha Christie and he is currently organising the UK’s first academic conference devoted to Agatha Christie to be held at Exeter in April 2014.

After attending our Screen Talks event on Plein Soleil on Monday 4th November Jamie has written a guest blog post for us, reflecting on his responses to the film:


First of all, I must confess: I’ve never read The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s novel on which Plein Soleil is based, and I haven’t seen any other dramatisation. I am, however, familiar with Highsmith’s prose, although the only other adaptation I’ve seen is Strangers on a Train. When I saw the book advertised in a Waterstones’ Cosy Crime display I felt personally affronted: cosy, indeed! Highsmith mastered the unsettling psychological thriller. And I certainly knew the clichés about Tom Ripley: a suave, sexually ambiguous serial-killer who never gets caught; the ultimate anti-hero. I came to see René Clément’s Plein Soleil because it is a famous film that I ought to have seen. It’s not what I was expecting.

The film is over half a century old, and as such relies on dialogue, direction, and acting for creation of suspense.  This evening, I’m going to see Gravity in 3D – the trailer had my heart racing and that’s nothing to do with Sandra Bullock’s lines; it’s the fact that she’s miles above the Earth and floating through space. Well, nothing like that in Plein Soleil. Not even so much as a fist fight. It’s more sophisticated, more personal.

I’ve always resisted Highsmith films because her skill as a writer lies in getting you inside an amoral or unconventional mind. You can’t do that with dialogue alone – or with flat, visual images, can you? Surely it’s about that slightly off-the-pivot angle from which protagonists view the world? The way they clutch at words – at moments in the conversation – and twist them and turn them, asking questions before we get back to dialogue and realise that none of what we’ve read was visible to anyone else.

Well, I was wrong! We don’t stay inside the mind of Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) – of course not – that would be impossible. But we go along with it. And that is more intoxicating, more unsettling. You know he’s going to kill his friend, Phillipe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) eventually – partly because he is Mr Ripley, and partly because of the very strange jokes he and Greenleaf make, again and again as their boat sails further and further out to sea, about how convenient a murder would be.

About half-way through, Ripley prepares to receive a police officer who is going to inform him of another friend’s death. Ripley has just killed this friend (footstep, footstep, footstep, as he raised the weapon…). He has been impersonating Greenleaf in order to get hold of money, and is still wearing Greenleaf’s shirt. Painstakingly covering small traces of his deception, he forgets the clothes. At this point, my fiancé turned to me and said: ‘Is it bad that I want him to get away with it?’

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The film is full of sunshine and the vibrancy of night shadows; it draws you in. The cast is beautiful. Delon has this kind of magnetic beauty that makes you want to watch him and learn all about him, and the same kind of youth as James Dean. That everything he said was a little off-kilter, a little wide of the narrow mark of social niceties, made his character and his world the more entrancing.

In fact, a young couple had an argument on the way out of the cinema. The man was trying to justify to his girlfriend why he hadn’t noticed what the women were wearing. ‘I was engrossed in Tom Ripley – he was so beautiful.’ That’s everything you want from a serial killer. Nothing so vulgar as Dexter. You don’t know Ripley; that’s the point.

The end of the film – where everything culminates – really summarised to me Plein Soleil’s hypnotic allure. When, in the final few minutes, Greenleaf’s body appears out of nowhere, somebody near me in the auditorium gasped! It didn’t seem any more ridiculous or implausible or anticlimactic than the rest of the film. When the police called Tom Ripley over and he contentedly walked towards them, suspecting nothing amiss, it worked. Then: Fin. That was it. A man who’d wriggled out of every incrimination wasn’t even given the chance to get out of this one.

Of course, the book ends differently: the talented Mr Ripley is the most infamous unpunished serial killer after Jack the Ripper. While Highsmith admired Plein Soleil, she described its conclusion as a ‘terrible concession to so-called public morality.’ Endings in films were often changed, as we know, to avoid censorship and public outrage, but the ending of this one, though excellently pulled off, undermined the slickly twisted morality of the preceding two hours.

The dramatic irony running through the film, so integral to its conclusion, is something Dr Sam North pointed out in his lively, engaging introduction to the evening. As one of Sam’s MA students in 2011, I loved his lecture style. His talk reminded me how much I missed it. By giving us moments to pay special attention to – ‘watch out for the earring, and think about when it will reappear’ – Sam added extra layers of suspense, dramatic irony, and expectation. I found myself anticipating the detail that would get me anticipating further details.