11/20/2012 09:19 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Movie Review: Rust and Bone

W Magazine

The visual trickery will catch your attention -- but it's the performance behind it that will hold you and move you in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, opening Friday (November 11, 2012) in limited release.

The director of the harrowing Un Prophete -- with its gritty violence and interracial tensions in a French prison -- tackles something quite different here: a romantic drama about lost souls groping toward each other.

The film stars Marion Cotillard, as Stephanie, who trains and performs with killer whales at Marineland near Cannes. The other half of this couple is Mathias Schoenaerts (Bullhead), as Alain, a single father trying to keep it together by working as a bouncer, a video-surveillance installer and a bare-knuckle brawler in backroom fights.

Alain arrives in Antibes with his young son, who he seems ill-equipped to care for. But he gradually begins to find his way with the boy, with the help of the sister he is living with.

He meets Stephanie one night at the club where he guards the door. She is drunk and rowdy, but he treats her gently, though she is reticent about his pitch to go out with him.

But her life changes drastically after an accident on the job. She wakes up as a legless amputee -- and I didn't say spoiler alert because this happens within the first 20 minutes of the film. And, frankly, if you've heard anything about the film, it's as the movie where Marion Cotillard will earn her next Oscar nomination for playing a double amputee.

But the pair reconnect and the beefy, hulking Alain proves to be a boon companion: friendly, caring, helpful -- someone who is willing to keep her company or take her out into the world. They even develop a physical relationship and, gradually, learn to truly care about each other.

Yet Audiard's script never hammers that point: that each is incomplete in some way, until they find their way to the other. It's not readily apparent at first -- to the audience or to the characters -- that this pair might be right for each other. But, in fact they are, providing the support that neither has apparently ever felt from another person.

Cotillard finds the sorrow in this woman -- at the loss of her sense of herself that must be regained, at the loss of a connection she had with the aquatic mammals she worked with. Yet she also convincingly captures that turning point when Stephanie decides to go on, despite the hard work that entails. She is emotionally naked with Schoenaerts, who also reveals a depth of feeling and vulnerability that is moving.

Rust and Bone offers as unlikely a romance as you'll see this year -- and as compelling a performance as any that are in the Oscar hunt. If Cotillard didn't have a reputation as a major film actress before this, she absolutely should from now on.

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