"Rust and Bone" is exactly the sort of love story you'd expect from Jacques Audiard, director of the brutal, Oscar-nominated French crime drama, "A Prophet" — a filmmaker whose usual propensity is toward stories about thugs, hoodlums, and other angry young men. That is to say, it's a violent, decidedly unromantic one. A rough-and-tumble portrait of two bruised, battered, and altogether broken individuals who find one another and form an unlikely bond, its story plays less like a sweet caress than a swift punch in the gut.
As the film opens, brutish, down-on-his-luck single father Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, in a role not too far off from the troubled boxer he played in last year's "Bullhead") is traveling with his young son, Sam, leaving behind a bad situation with the boy's mother to move in with his working-class sister and her husband in the French Riviera. Ali starts working as a bouncer at a dance club, where he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance), coming to her aid and driving her home after she's assaulted during a bar fight. It seems as though she's no stranger to this kind of trouble, and he leaves her with his phone number should she need his help again.
Weeks later, Stephanie contacts Ali again. She's been through an accident during a live show at the aquatic park where she works as a whale trainer, and she's lost both of her legs. Now housebound, she's lonely, depressed, and desperately in need of companionship. He comes to see her, and gets her out of the house by taking her to the beach, allowing her to see that life without her legs is possible. Gradually the two strike up a friendship, which eventually leads to sex, though at first it's just "to see if it still works". Their friends-with-benefits-style relationship mostly involves Stephanie texting Ali to see if he's OP (their text code that means he's free for a quick romp). What begins as a relationship of convenience — two people who have been damaged, emotionally and physically, finding comfort in one another — morphs into something deeper without either party realizing it.
Ali and Stephanie's problems perhaps boil down to rather simplistic solutions: she needs to feel desirable again, while he needs to find the correct way to channel his aggression and gift for smashing things with his fists. But the performances from each actor invest the characters with the complexity that the script sometimes lacks. Cotillard in particular delivers a quieter, more internal performance than one would expect in a role with such potential for Oscar-reel acting pyrotechnics. It should be noted that the digital removal of Cotillard's legs is a convincing, seamless effect.
Audiard remains somewhat detached from the material as a director, leaving us guessing as to what's going on in the minds of his characters. There's no attempt here to make either of these characters particularly likeable, a decision which somehow feels very French. Stephanie is dour and somewhat manipulative even before her accident (though I appreciated the decision to avoid the cliché of making the handicapped Stephanie out to be a saint), while Ali is hot-headed and aggressive; a large, powerful creature capable of inflicting violence at any moment. Rather animalistic in nature, he always does what it takes to ensure his own survival. He clearly loves his son, but often neglects him, too. His relationship with Stephanie brings out a softer side of him, hinting that he does indeed have the capacity to care for another human being.
Not for nothing is the fact that Stephanie made her living by training wild animals to obey guidelines inherently against their nature. This skill becomes useful to her as she accompanies Ali when he gets involved in a network of illegal, bare-knuckle street fights. Ostensibly he starts just to make money to support him and his son, but he admits to Stephanie that the main draw for him is the thrill and fun of the fights, and she finds herself captivated as well.
As a director, Audiard is unusually attuned to the ways in which people wear the scars of the choices they've had to make as they move through life. Nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but completely snubbed when Oscar nominations were announced, "Rust and Bone" is an uneven, not easily digestible film. Like its characters, I found the sheer physicality of the film often thrilling to watch. Audiard finds the raw, beating heart at the center of this tough love story, infusing it with a fairy-tale-esque poetry. For all its flaws, it's a film that sticks with you, not unlike the dull pain that comes with a fresh bruise.