In her work at Marineland on France's Côte d'Azur, Stephanie is all confidence and control. With hand signals and an almost telepathic empathy, she guides killer whales through their performances for crowds of vacationing families. She's a cocky force of nature in her off hours, too, navigating her way through schools of pickup artists at the local disco.
Then a work accident leaves her mangled and isolated. Shellshocked and unable to reconnect with her former life, she impulsively reaches out to Ali, the brutish club bouncer she met briefly before the accident. The beauty and the beast form the unlikeliest of alliances and begin to remake their lives.
Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" is an effective and moving drama about the strength of the human spirit and the will to survive. Given that Audiard has previously made macho, tightly directed movies (such as his Oscar-nominated 2009 prison drama "A Prophet"), it's no surprise this is a testament to tough love.
The gritty, unaffected romance is elevated by a pair of beautiful tragicomic performances. Oscar winner Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose," "The Dark Knight Rises") plays Stephanie with strength and integrity, revealing the psychological devastation that follows a life-altering calamity but never trolling for sympathy.
As her character begins to overcome a seemingly insurmountable injury, the power of Cotillard's performance distracts us from Stephanie's disfigurement and draws us deep into her experience. She begins as a woman whose view of life had never extended much past her own vanity and daily routine. After the depression of her near-death begins to lift, she begins to perceive the world differently, seeing possibilities and life all around her. She begins living more fully with a wheelchair and prosthetic legs than she ever had before.
The key to her rebirth is Ali, a petty crook, inattentive single father and aspiring bare-knuckle street fighter. He's played by the bull-necked Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts as a boxer drawn to his sport not because it appeals to a violent streak but because it provides an outlet for his sheer brute energy.
He's completely matter-of-fact about life's hard knocks, which is why Stephanie's intuition led her to call him. On their first outing to the beach he leaves her on the beach and plunges into the water. It's not a callous gesture but a challenge. She can get back into the swim if she wants it enough. He's not a sensitive lover -- he asks if she's in the mood as casually as you'd schedule an oil change -- but he's a 110-volt connection to the life force.
As Stephanie becomes Ali's manager, promoter and cheerleader, she rebuilds an unimaginable new career from the wreckage of her old life. They fight for every step forward and you cheer them on. The film's odd title refers to the taste of a solid punch to the jaw. It's also a hint that sometimes it takes a painful blow to remind you you're alive.