Better make an Oscar-shaped space in the trophy cabinet
You think you know what you're getting with Rust and Bone. Here's yet another heart-sinking drama in which an able- bodied actor begs for an Oscar by playing a disabled character.
But this is written and directed by Jacques Audiard, whose unbroken run of outstanding films includes the Hitchcock-esque noir Read My Lips, gritty character study The Beat That My Heart Skipped and searing prison drama A Prophet.
All three transcended their genres, defied expectations and deftly avoided the pitfalls of cliché. So too does Rust and Bone, which spares us the grim spectacle of manipulative "inspirational" drama and duly won the Best Film award at last month's London Film Festival, with plenty more gongs likely to follow.
Vaguely inspired by Craig Davidson's short story collection of the same title, which doesn't feature the two main characters here, Rust and Bone appears at first to be about feckless, homeless, impecunious Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts). He arrives in Antibes with Sam (Armand Verdure), the five-year-old son he hardly knows, in tow. Palming Sam off on his sister Anna (Corinne Mariero), he finds work as a nightclub bouncer. It's here that he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), rescuing her from a brawl and romantically informing her that she's "dressed up like a whore" before driving her home, clearly hoping for sex.
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Confident, assured and beautiful Stephanie is clearly out of his league, but she accepts his phone number anyway.
It turns out that Stephanie trains Orcas to perform demeaning tricks at a grim marine park.
Horribly injured by one of the giant beasts during a show, she wakes up in hospital to find that both her legs have been amputated. Eventually, she swallows her pride and calls Ali.
Disarmingly, he displays no compassion or pity for her to rail against, simply agreeing to help her. Soon they're making regular visits to the Cannes Croisette, where he carries her into the water for tentative, therapeutic swims.
When she begins to wonder whether "it still works" down below, Ali volunteers matter-of-factly to help her find out.
Happily for both parties, it works just fine. But while Stephanie begins to fall in love with Ali, the testosterone-engorged brute openly continues to seek casual sex elsewhere and embarks on a new career as a bare-knuckle boxer.
There's clearly a parallel being drawn here between Stephanie's physical disability and thuggish Ali's stunted emotional life, in which he can no more form an adult relationship than he can care for his own son, who's generally left to play in dog excrement.
But Audiard resists cheap "two damaged souls against the world" romanticism, doesn't try to sell us a cheesy redemptive story arc and never labours obvious metaphors.
His regular cinematographer Stephane Fontaine's intimate, hand-held camera work proves perfectly complementary, occasionally surprising with images of extraordinary beauty.
While the bare synopsis (paraplegic killer whale trainer falls for street-fighting pugilist) sounds contrived and faintly risible, and it all gets a tad melodramatic as it careers towards a rather unsatisfactory false note of an ending, the central visceral love story is beautifully played. Marion Cotillard, in particular, gives a vanity free, digitally enhanced performance of such power that she'd better make room in her trophy cabinet for another Oscar, to stand beside the one she bagged for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose back in 2008.