11/30/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts: Rust and Bone 's Tender Heart

Midway through a luncheon celebrating Rust and Bone, news came that the French film starring Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts was nominated for an Independent Spirit Best International film award. Not even a glass was raised, as if awards for this edgy movie were simply a matter of course.

SONY Pictures Classics' Michael Barker said he and his partner Tom Bernard backed Rust and Bone even before they read the script, making a deal with director Jacques Audiard after A Prophet's critical success for his next film, whatever it might be. Then they get a script: A woman loses her legs, befriends a bouncer who also fights and has a son, eh, why not, Barker laughs, throwing up his arms. Like A Prophet with its insider prison view, the film offers a glimpse into a world unto itself: Picture the saturated, happy colors of resorts in travel brochures. Now imagine the opposite, beaches in dour tones in perpetual off-season. That is the look of Rust and Bone.

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts worked the Café Ruhlmann. De-glamorized in the movie, having lost her legs to an orca whale, Cotillard's Stephanie nevertheless looks good plain. She's also tough, taking pleasure managing Ali's dirty fights. Exuding about this film, as she did at the Gotham Awards the night before at her tribute, Cotillard is pleased that it would play outside her country. Pre-American fame, helping to promote her Best Actress Oscar-winning, La Vie en Rose (2007), she seemed like an innocent school kid; that was before she learned English well enough to be cast in American films, she pointed out. She's in The Dark Knight Rises, and before that, Woody Allen's Midnight in, well, Paris. As to foreign films, Barker has said, the best could work without subtitles. And in Rust and Bone, the actress seems freed, delivering one of the finest performances of the year. Films rarely bring you this far out of the comfort zone of ordinary emotion.

Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is now enjoying a similar journey. Diners remarked at how different he appears off-screen, his easy handsome informality in sweater and jeans. As Ali he is all brawn, tattooed, blunt, a nervous bouncer, and bruiser by the sheer contours of his muscles. The Rust and Bone romance transforms them both: Ali brings Stephanie back to life, just as she, deformity and all, finds something soft in him.

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