I wish you could see “Rust and Bone,"French director Jacques Audiard's beautiful melodrama, without knowing what happens at the half-hour point. But if you've seen the magazine interviews with Marion Cotillard, or write-ups of the film, pro and con, or even its trailer, you already know.
(If you don't, do yourself a favor and stop reading right now.)
In a dreamlike flash, Cotillard's Stephanie, a trainer of orca whales at a Marineland park, loses her legs. She wakes in a hospital, like so many other characters in so many movies — especially war movies — to gaze at the end of the bed and the flat nothing of a crisp, white sheet. The shock is seismic.
That's not the only jolt in “Rust and Bone," a love story and a story of two people who bring each other back to life. Audiard, whose screenplay here synthesizes elements of a short story by Craig Davidson, opens with the close-up of feet tramping down the side of a wide road pocked with food franchises and gas stations. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and his 5-year-old son (Armand Verdure) are hoboing their way to Antibes, in the south of France, thumbing rides, hopping trains, scrounging garbage bins for food.
Ali is heading to his sister's, where he hopes to unload his boy and find a job. Which he does, as a bouncer in a nightclub. And that's how he meets Stephanie, pre-accident, when she comes to dance and gets caught up in a nasty brawl.
The pair reconnect with a phone call that leads to a surprisingly casual meeting, after Stephanie becomes a double amputee. “Rust and Bone" tracks these two souls — his life rooted in violence, hers marked by a sort of empty sybaritism — as they discover how much they need each other, help each other, and challenge each other. (And want each other — the sex here is urgent, vital.)
Audiard, who made the uncompromising prison saga “A Prophet," is like a gritty, realist Douglas Sirk — throwing his characters into whirlwind scenarios that are filled with big emotions and fateful turns of events. But there's a deep truthfulness here, too, in the way Ali and Stephanie latch on to each other out of need, and then begin to realize they are in love.
Thanks to the ace deployment of digital effects, Stephanie's absent limbs are, to the viewer, wholly believable, as are the prosthetics she gets fitted with later. But it is what Cotillard does with her body, her face, her eyes, that brings real believability to Stephanie's plight. It's an incredibly nuanced performance (the look of total despair in the hospital room; the poetry and exhilaration of the moment when Stephanie, on a sunlit balcony, reenacts the dance-like gestures she used when she worked with the whales).
Schoenaerts is just as good. As Ali falls into a world of illegal boxing, winning money and pummeling opponents, it's like somebody finally knocked the guy the right way in the head: The world, with Stephanie at his side, finally makes sense.
The narrative at the heart of “Rust and Bone" is a vehicle for sentiment and over-the-top histrionics if ever there was one, but Audiard and his two stars deliver the exact opposite: a film thrillingly raw and essential, life-affirming, sublime.