Gal Gadot’s Stephen Hawking tweet, and the unsentimental handling of disability in ‘Rust and Bone’

Baradwaj Rangan

Mar 26, 2018 11:11:42 IST

Ableist (i.e. someone who discriminates against people with disabilities). That’s a new word I learnt after the passing of Stephen Hawking, when Gal ‘Wonder Woman’ Gadot put out this tweet: “Rest in peace Dr. Hawking. Now you’re free of any physical constraints. Your brilliance and wisdom will be cherished forever.” Several tweets took Gadot to task. Here’s a sample: “For the love of dog and all things holy, please don’t describe Stephen Hawking as having overcome his disability, or his disability as inability, or any number of boring, ableist tropes that take away from what an utter bad*** he was and how the world was better for him in it.”

On the other hand, there were defenders: “Why the criticism? I doubt that Stephen Hawking was happy about having ALS [Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis]. He had physical constraints. That much is obvious. Yet he led a brilliant life anyway. That’s all I see here.” I wonder what the Twitterati would have said about Marion Cotillard’s statement when she was promoting her film, Rust and Bone (2012), directed by Jacques Audiard. (This was his follow-up to the widely acclaimed A Prophet). A Chicago Tribune reporter asked Cotillard (whose character, Stéphanie, wakes up after an accident and discovers her legs have been amputated) if it’s more difficult to lose arms or legs. The answer: “Oh my God, I don’t know. It’s hard to compare. It’s really hard to lose a part of your body. No, I’d rather not lose anything. [Laughs]”

The film is a love story between Stéphanie and a boxer named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is not an “ableist,” but not for politically correct reasons. The conceit is that he is “crippled” in a way, too. He isn’t emotionally expressive, and thus, unlike the others who meet Stéphanie. Ali’s sister feels tense around Stéphanie. (When they first meet, she mutters, “Poor thing.”) And at a nightclub, when a man who hits on Stéphanie finds out about her condition, he says, “I’m sorry...” Stéphanie asks, “Sorry for what?” He says, “I couldn’t know.” Stéphanie is hell-bent on making him articulate what his discomfort is about. She asks, in the same vein, “Know what?” He says, “I couldn’t know you had a... Didn’t have...” She asks, “Have what?”

But note how Ali talks to Stéphanie after the accident. It’s been a while since they met, so she asks – over a phone call – if he remembers her. “We met at the Annex. The fight, the ice.” He doesn’t hesitate for a moment. “Stéphanie, sure! How are you doing?” She asks if he heard what happened. He says he saw it on TV. She asks, “So how do you think I’m doing?” His answer is remarkable, because it speaks for all of us. “I don’t know.” Ali is a special case, because of his inability to feel, but even if he were the most sensitive being on earth, how could he possibly know how Stéphanie is doing? But because of his emotional stuntedness, he gives Stéphanie the very thing she needs: a matter-of-fact manner of looking at her condition.

You almost laugh at the way he proposes they have sex. They’re having a chat about their exes, the people they are seeing casually. She says, “I was very... I liked being watched. I liked turning them on. I liked getting them worked up. But then I’d get bored.” Now, she says she’s forgotten what it’s like. “I don’t know if it still works.” He asks, “No more desire?” She says, “I never said that. Sure, I feel desire.” Suddenly, she’s embarrassed. “Change the subject,” she says. A little later, he asks, “You want to f***?” (His tone is like: “You want to go get a coffee?”) She’s startled. He says, “To see if it still works. If we f***, you’ll know.” She laughs, even more embarrassed. “Just like that? I’m not sure if I can.” He shrugs. “Your call. You tell me.”

An American film would have sentimentalised this scene, perhaps with a background score alerting us to Stéphanie’s emotions. This isn’t a criticism. It’s just a style, after all. But the lack of a score behind this scene in Rust and Bone suggests the farthest thing from ableism. Forget discrimination, there’s not even much emotion. Even the stretch that follows is hardly the Tender Sex Scene™ we know from Hollywood. Audiard said, “When Ali and Stéphanie make love, they are not just naked. They have lost more than their clothes. My camera moves over their bodies, and we see Stéphanie’s missing legs. It’s like she is... over-naked.”

This is not new territory for Audiard. His Read My Lips (2001) is about an ex-con (Paul, played by Vincent Cassel) and a near-deaf secretary (Carla, played by Emmanuelle Devos). During a conversation at a bar, Paul notes that Carla’s expression has changed. He asks if he did or said something wrong. But she gestures towards some people at a distance and says, “They’re making fun of me.” Paul asks how she knows. Carla replies that she lip-reads. Paul is stunned. “You mean you’re... deaf?” She says, simply, “I was deaf. Now I’m kind of deaf.” Paul asks her what those people are saying. Carla says, “[that] a dog like me is lucky to get a guy like you.” It sounds cruel, but also non-ableist. The film doesn’t pity Carla. Neither does Carla pity herself.

Updated Date: Mar 27, 2018 21:21:09 IST