From the moment you meet Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), shoplifting and scavenging for food alongside his five-year-old son (Armand Verdure), you can tell that this margin dweller is a survivor—and that he’s probably pretty good with his fists. Working as a club bouncer, he rescues Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) from a scuffle; that we first glimpse the drunken, depressed damsel in distress as only a pair of legs splayed on the ground is telling, given that an accident at her workplace (she trains orcas at a marine park) will soon cost her her lower limbs. After some requisite King’s Row–like histrionics, the charitable brute helps Stéphanie adjust to life as an amputee.Savvy viewers will think they’re headed into a typical melodrama of mutual healing: Call it The Diving Belle and the Bruiserfly.
But director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) has another destination in mind. While disability-of-the-week movie tropes do get trotted out, they quickly take a backseat to bigger-picture musings on the economically handicapped and, characteristic
of the French filmmaker, the simultaneously liberating and limiting aspects of male violence. Lyrical touches and the most moving use ever of Katy Perry’s “Firework”
almost cancel out a cheap-shot third-act tragedy, yet it’s the actors that save the film from soaping itself into Euro-miserablist irrelevance. Anyone who’s seen the Oscar-nominated Bullhead knows that Schoenaerts can channel masculine volatility like a pro, but it’s Cotillard who surprises: Too often cast as eye candy, she demonstrates a facility here for tiny gestures and facial expressions that suggest emotional arcs in miniature. If La Vie en Rose confirmed she could play a lead, Rust and Bone proves she’s a genuinely subtle, intuitive actor—one more than capable of making the title’s combination of flinty and brittle seem fully fleshed out.
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