Jacques Audiard has a reputation to maintain as arguably the most exciting film-maker in Europe. Rust and Bone will do the job. It may even win him fans unacquainted with his potent studies of underclass manners and mores, The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet.
The story of an unlikely encounter, it stars Marion Cotillard as Steph, a show trainer of orca whales at a Cote d'Azur resort. When a tragic accident at the pool deprives her of both legs, she comes close to despair; instead, she contacts a bouncer named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) who rescued her in a nightclub brawl some months previously.
Ali is a meathead, a one-night stander and a pretty awful father to his six-year-old son, whom he mostly leaves in his sister's care. But he's a great unpatronising friend to Steph, taking her out to swim and even offering his sexual services when she worries about her feeling (or lack of) "down there".
The romantic fuse is lit – can it go the distance? Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain are adapting from Craig Davidson's book of short stories, which may explain the slightly disjointed feel of the film.
Themes keep bumping up against one another – disability, fatherhood, fidelity, independence – while Ali's burgeoning career as a bareknuckle fighter jostles for space with a subplot about workers' exploitation.
At times melodrama is allowed to bully its way through, and there's a moment of pure Rocky schmaltz to make you wonder if Audiard isn't pitching to the box-office. Cotillard's superb performance keeps the film more or less honest – don't be surprised to see her tipped as favourite for a Best Actress Oscar.