Rust and Bone

FISH, MAMMAL, WHATEVER: Marion Cotillard plays a killer-whale trainer with issues in 'Rust and Bone.'

A mostly dry-eyed species of wheelchair romance, director Jacques Audiard's romantic Rust and Bone demonstrates a documentarian's camera: authentic-looking desperation finessing the seaside sweetness. In the longer-lens shots, sometimes even the beaches look hard used and second-rate.

Everything touched by the bruiser Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) looks semilegit. We first see him in a hejira to his sister's hard-scrabble place in the south of France, hauling his young son with him. The sister breeds dogs (it's a low-rent puppy mill), and she helps herself to expired groceries at her job. Ali eventually goes to work for a clandestine surveillance business that chain stores use to spy on their employees.

During a pick-up gig as a bouncer at a thuggy nightclub, Ali encounters Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), who has just had her nose bloodied in a fight. She is a troubled killer-whale trainer at a Marineworld-like park. There's a definite feeling between Ali and Stephanie when they go back to her place together in the wee hours: the possibility is squelched by Stephanie's male live-in. Shortly afterwards, a freak accident deprives her of her legs, an incident Audiard stages as a dream of underwater horror.

Rust and Bone features Cotillard's best acting yet, with the delicacy and the existential hardness both visible, both believable. Admittedly, the time honored "where's the rest of me?" scene is good for any actor. It's augmented with researched, authentically hard recovery time: after the ordeal, Cotillard's Stephanie looks different. It's more than just her leglessness: she does a sterling job of manifesting trauma, of being a hollow-eyed shut in. Not that it robs her of appeal: many a fan would prefer 2/3rds of Cotillard over 3/3rds of a lesser woman.

If Rust and Bone sounds like Oscar-bait, it is, but it's honorable and not euphemistic. The procedural details of her rehabilitation are novel. So is her cheer in showing off a bit of a metal prosthetic leg to Ali; she flicks her skirt up and gives him a peek. There's intelligence here, but more importantly there's balance between Ali and Stephanie's stories, which isn't the usual case in a movie about a working-class fighter and his lady.

Rust and Bone

R; 120 min.

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