Merely the premise of "Rust and Bone" sounds uncomfortably maudlin: A wayward single father and part-time fighter falls into an unexpected romance with a beautiful whale trainer who's just lost both her legs below the knee in a freak accident. Both must undergo drastic transformations that render them as vulnerable as newborn babies. Both are literally and metaphorically broken and must help each other heal.
But it's the stripped-down way director and co-writer Jacques Audiard tells this story that, for the most part, makes it more compelling than the feel-good plot suggests. With intimate camerawork that explores the lonely corners of his characters' lives and a prevalent naturalism, Audiard avoids trite, sentimental uplift. This isn't as powerful as his epic, gripping "A Prophet" from 2009 or as thrilling as 2002's "Read My Lips." But it has a quiet intensity and, ultimately, a hard-won sense of optimism.
At its center, "Rust and Bone" features two vivid performances that allow their actors to strip away all traces of vanity. A strikingly de-glammed Marion Cotillard stars as Stephanie, a trainer at Marineland in Antibes in the south of France. One night she goes dancing at a club, gets into a confrontation and leaves disheveled and bloodied.
Her escort home is the club's bouncer, Ali (up-and-coming Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who was formidable in last year's foreign-language Oscar nominee "Bullhead"). He's recently arrived in town with Sam (Armand Verdure), the 5-year-old, towheaded son he barely knows. Together they're just surviving, living temporarily with Ali's sister as he puts together random security jobs and trains to be a mixed-martial arts fighter.
Months later, when a terrifying accident during an orca performance (to the strains of Katy Perry's strangely unsettling "Firework") leaves Stephanie a double partial amputee, she finds herself calling Ali, the blunt brute who'd left her his phone number. It's precisely that unapologetically non-nonsense demeanor that she craves. She doesn't want to be pitied; she wants to feel like a woman again.
And so they embark on a tricky friends-avec-benefits relationship. Through seamless special effects, Audiard renders these scenes frankly and honestly, with an awkwardness that eventually gives way to animalism. These are people who never would have connected under ordinary circumstances; they end up needing each other desperately. Only in the movies.
Cotillard won the Academy Award for best actress for transforming herself into Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," and has embodied a certain romantic femininity in films like "Inception" and "Midnight in Paris." Unadorned as she is here, her talent and presence feel even more vibrant and accessible. And Schoenaerts is just a force of nature, all masculine magnetism and impulse.
Sure, there's a show-offiness to this kind of artistic slumming - a self-consciously understated scenery chewing that occurs in a story about damaged people - but that's certainly preferable to flowery exclamations of hope. Here, the hope is fought for and earned.
"Rust and Bone," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes. Three stars out of four.