Rust and Bone could well have failed. In many other hands the story of a killer whale trainer who loses her legs but finds strength and her resurrection in an unlikely relationship with an underworld bare knuckle boxer with a good heart…well, it could have been a monstrous amalgamation of Rocky meets Free Willy with the contrived over-sentimentality of Steel Magnolias.

But in the hands of Un Prophet‘s excellent helmer Jacques Audiard, the film swerves the “cancer story”/Oscar baiting stigma that some will accuse it of thanks to a simple but engaging central story and two award-worthy performances from its central actors.

Marion Cotillard plays said whale trainer – Stephanie – who loses her legs after a performance accident, and who regresses rapidly to a self-destructive stagnating state, but who finds hope and the capacity for her own resurrection through a relationship with Matthias Schoenaerts‘ bare-knuckle boxer Ali, who lives hand to mouth by any means before his underworld fights offer him and his son some opportunities for a slightly better life. Having briefly met Stephanie before her accident, Alain helps her to find herself again not through pandering or pity, but simply by offering his help and his company, and you have to give credit to Audiard that his story never strays towards saccharine, made-for-TV style sentimentality.

Rust and Bone is still an emotionally raw film though – like an exposed nerve at times – and Audiard’s minimalist approach to shot composition and cinematography help that cause wonderfully. Every decision feels choreographed to the most extreme degree and as a result no shot feels wasted: Audiard’s approach is one of economy, relying on spectacle only when it is appropriate for the story and instead allowing the strength of his actors, and indeed of his story, which is adapted (though not closely) from Craig Davidson‘s short story collection.

Though there are other significant characters involved – Sam, Anna, Martial – the success of the film  is entirely on the shoulders of its two chief actors: Marion Cotillard is stunningly good as Stephanie, wearing her physical and emotional wounds with piquancy and authenticity, and Schoenaerts continues to show the form previously seen in Bullhead. His ability to transition from subtle restraint to unadulterated animalism is completely irresistible, and it gives his character a wonderfully interesting central contradiction: he is a walking oxymoron, both emotional and physical and Schoenaerts’ plays him like a frozen pond with a fatal current beneath it. It is no surprise then that a frozen lake plays a major part in his character’s development and in the final act of the story.

If there is any justice, Schoenaerts will make the next step up, joining Cotillard on the biggest stage (provided he wants to), and Hollywood will do well by his association. He has a raw intensity that would make him invaluable to a number of genres, and hopefully he won’t only be offered the lazy opportunity to make some tasteless action films that require an authoritative exotic influence. Don’t get me wrong, I’d watch it, but he has a lot more to give. He might get a nod come awards season for this performance, but Cotillard almost definitely will. She is measured and utterly compelling, creating a portrait of a completely broken person that never descends into triteness or excess: though we are invited to sympathize with her, we are never supposed to feel sorry for Stephanie exactly, and both Audiard and Cotillard are careful not to make her the irredeemable victim she could have been.

It is undoubtedly a good thing that those the two leads cope with their responsibilities so well, but even when the film moves away from them it remains almost as successful: alongside Stephanie’s resurrection story and Ali’s fighting, the other key relationships and sub-plots involved could well have ended up as mere distractions, but Ali’s fracturous relationships with his sister (Corinne Masiero) and son (Armand Verdure) are just as important as his relationship with Stephanie. Even more impressively, every element then ties in to lead to a hugely affecting final act – though the inclusion of the killer whales did feel like a rare moment of comparative self-indulgence (the resultant sequence is good enough to be completely forgiven, thankfully).

And it is further testament to how well Audiard balances his story, that converging stories of human interest can occupy the same space as occasionally brutal fight sequences, which offer a counter-weight to the steamier sex scenes and that suggest, but never quite insist on the problems that Stephanie and Ali’s relationship will have to overcome to flourish. That their love story is the main focus of all the story elements is a triumph of the intellect and technical prowess (helped in no small way by Stephane Fontaine‘s beautiful cinematography) behind the production, and it is one of the most convincing relationships I have had the pleasure of watching on screen.

Arguably the finest decision Audiard made with Rust and Bone was the resistance to make it solely Stephanie’s story: her resurrection could have made for a more solipsistic tale which would probably have felt a lot more worthy (in the worst sense of the word) even with Cotillard on this kind of form, but by the end, it is Ali who is revealed as the real heart of the film. That is a hugely brave decision, and follows Audiard’s charge not to devalue Stephanie’s disability into gimmick territory, which results in us sympathizing for her emotional condition, her fragility and inability to quite express what she feels to others or to Ali, rather than her physical one.

Parallels can be drawn with Javier Bardem’s Biuitiful, which screened in the festival a couple of years ago: both show the grubby underbelly of their chosen settings, and both deal with a devastating bodily trauma for central characters, and both also have a visceral nature to them that is profoundly affecting. I draw the parallel as a compliment – Biutiful was one of my favorite films, and certainly one of my favorite performances of 2010 – and the same will no doubt be said of Rust and Bone when this year is out.

The Upside: Cotillard and Schoenaerts both give award worthy performances, in a film that grips from the very outset without the need for vulgar spectacle.

The Downside: In an otherwise well-built soundtrack, certain songs are too invasive, and Katy Perry‘s “Firework” is just downright blatant when it arrives second time out.

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