Jacques Audiard, the French director who has quietly emerged as one of the best of his countrymen with films like the Oscar-nominated "A Prophet," "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" and "Read My Lips," continues his exploration of criminals and lowlifes with "Rust and Bone," an emotionally gripping if slightly meandering drama marked by two powerful lead performances.
To the French seaside town of Antibes comes Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a thick-fisted ex-boxer whose recent past, whatever it was, did not involve caring for his 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure). Now that the adorable towhead's mother has proven useless, Ali must step in. They move in with Ali's sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero) and Ali takes a job as a bouncer at a nightclub.
But this is not the story of an absentee father becoming a responsible adult, or at least not just that. In the course of his bouncer work, Ali meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a Marineland orca trainer who reaches out to him some months later after she's horrifically injured and needs compassionate associates to help get her life back together. They become friends, sort of, in the sense that the brutish Ali sometimes has moments of kindness and selflessness.
This is also not the story of a brave woman overcoming her adversities and falling in love with a troubled man, or at least not just that. The film (which was based on a book by Canadian author Craig Davidson) weaves back and forth between Stephanie and Ali's separate lives, showing the way they influence each other while they go about their own business. Ali, focused on becoming a professional fighter, starts making money in no-holds-barred bouts held in dirt parking lots organized by gypsies, in the meantime generally ignoring or forgetting about poor Sam. Stephanie incrementally crawls out of her depression and regains strength and mobility, even taking on the task of being Ali's manager at one point.
It must be pointed out that Ali is a terrible father and not a good person in general. He's purely animalistic: he does what he wants to, when he wants to. His very first interaction with Stephanie is to offer her a ride home after she's been involved in a bar fight, with no ulterior motives on his part, only to casually mention in the car that she's dressed "like a whore." Occasionally his desires overlap with being nice to someone, but make no mistake, he's only thinking of his own desires.
The marvelous thing is that despite Ali's objectively bad behavior, we don't often think of him as a bad person. Matthias Schoenaerts (recently seen in "Bullhead") gets us to sympathize with Ali, to understand his beastly tendencies. Like a modern-day Stanley Kowalski, Ali bulldozes over everyone and everything around him, but he isn't malicious about it. He simply doesn't fit in the world of civilized people. Schoenaerts' fury and agony are deeply affecting.
His counterpart, Marion Cotillard, is stunning in different ways. The beautiful Oscar-winner (for "La Vie en Rose") fearlessly allows herself to be filmed in the most vulnerable and unflattering situations, completely committing to the character's misery after her disfiguring accident. As Stephanie's fierce bravery and determination are reignited, Cotillard comes to life -- which is why it's disappointing that the movie practically forgets about her during the Ali-focused final act. This is especially puzzling given that, for a while there, it seemed like Stephanie would actually become the main character.
Audiard is either very lucky or else has a great facility with actors. Both of these characters are tricky -- Ali could be despicable; Stephanie could be depressing -- but Audiard helps the performers make them recognizably human. He also captures some hauntingly beautiful images (Cotillard and an orca separated by a glass wall, for instance) and takes us through many wrenching experiences without neglecting to provide the catharsis afterward. It's time to start eagerly anticipating every new film he makes.