Director Jacques Audiard's nifty 2009 prison epic A Prophet took a classic arc — the rise of a young man through a criminal world — and found in it something bracing and transformative: an anti-hero for a diverse and changing France. His deeply enjoyable new feature Rust and Bone also feels like a fresh reworking of an older mode of filmmaking; the swooning romantic melodrama shaped by tragedy.
The film has a beautiful heroine brought low by a terrible accident and a brutish hero who's more eloquent with his fists than with words. It's a pleasing film with old bones, though its surfaces are all brightly contemporary, including the unexpectedly emotional appearance of a Katy Perry song.
Adapted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from a short story collection by Canadian author Craig Davidson, Rust and Bone is set in sunny Antibes in the south of France. It's where Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) works as an orca trainer at the local marine theme park and where Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) washes up with the five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) he inherited from a neglectful mother. Ali and Sam have come to stay with Ali's sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), a supermarket cashier who, alongside her truck-driver husband, gets by with a combination of side gigs and expired food snuck home from work.
Ali and Stéphanie first cross paths at a nightclub. He's working as a bouncer, and she's there to dance and to spite the lover she left at home. He comes to her rescue when a guy gets rough with her (while noting without censure that she's dressed "like a whore"), but she shoos him away after he drops her off at home. Stéphanie is aloof and untouchable until an accident at the water park leaves her permanently changed: She wakes up in the hospital with both legs gone below the knee and a whole new life to learn.
The next time our two leads meet, it's because Stéphanie seeks Ali out, needing a semi-stranger and drawn to his bluff lack of pretense. Stéphanie is tentative and ashamed in her reshaped body, while Ali is all physicality. He's a happy animal who takes up bare-knuckle brawling for cash on the side and who falls into sexual encounters with the comfortable ease of someone sitting down to a meal. There's an evident class difference between the two, but it doesn't bother Ali, who's blithely indifferent to social niceties. And while Stéphanie might have cared once, her new reality has left her appreciative of Ali's acceptance and lack of pity.
Rust and Bone rests on its twin lead performances, and Cotillard daringly bares everything to play Stéphanie -- her body, sure (this film rivals The Sessions for its frank, unruffled depictions of disabled sex), but also her unadorned face and the cool, distanced dignity she gives to her character who's lost everything, including an aspect of the standard physical beauty that was part of her identity. "I liked being watched," she tells Ali, as she struggles to deal with attracting stares for other reasons, and one of the film's great satisfactions is watching her rebuild herself as a new and stronger person with the help of her companion and eventual lover.
Schoenaerts, who played the lead in recent foreign language Oscar nominee Bullhead, is a real find. His hulking build houses a disarmingly sweet nature (as well as the ferocious temperament of a brawler) but no gift for forethought. The scenes between him and his son are beautiful when they aren't terrifying. Ali lives in the moment, and as a simple guy himself, he can get along well with the boy. But he's got no paternal instincts and this leads to a visceral parenting nightmare that's unforgettably staged on screen.
The chemistry between his character and Cotillard's is unusual, meanwhile. The attraction, while there, is less important than the ways they end up inserting themselves into each others lives, and how each begins to recognize the other's importance.
Rust and Bone is very aware of our flesh and how we inhabit it. It's there in the unreserved way it depicts Stéphanie's path back to mobility, from her ecstatic first dip in the ocean after the accident to her careful navigating of the stadium steps at her old place of work. And it's there in Ali's dangerous, bloody and exhilarating fights, as he batters someone in slow motion and afterward, too wired up to sit and talk, has to go for a run. The film has its soapy moments — as will any movie in which a character drags herself across a hospital floor crying "What did you do to my legs?" But its generous awareness of how our bodies relate to our sense of ourselves makes Rust and Bone both one of the year's most exceptional (and bittersweet) romances and a remarkable portrayal of how two people change and grow after traumatic experiences.
Follow Alison Willmore on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.