REDUCED TO ITS essential elements, there's tradition in Rust and Bone. Based on a collection of short stories by Canadian author Craig Davidson and directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet), it's a slow-building love story between two people who begin in an acrimonious place—an oft-repeated arc that's comforting evidence that sometimes happiness comes from unhappiness, too.
Rust's skin, on the flipside, is bizarre and grimy, and the paths of its characters are frightening and erratic—from one moment to the next, it's impossible to anticipate where this odd story will go. Marion Cotillard punts her makeup bag to the side to play Stéphanie, a brassy, working-class orca trainer (!) who works at a Sea World-like amusement park by day and rages at the clubs by night. Matthias Schoenaerts plays the brutish Alain, a homeless former boxer who recently reclaimed his young son from life with his mother as a drug mule. On the night they meet, Stéphanie's flat on her back in a parking lot with a bloody nose, and Alain tells her she's dressed like a slut. He gives her his number anyway. She doesn't call him.
Until she does. An on-the-job accident causes Stéphanie's legs to be amputated above the knee, hitting the restart button on both her character and the film. Cotillard's performance, deft throughout, is punctuated by her handling of Stéphanie's reaction when she wakes in the hospital, and the remainder of the film is a twisted mess of unromantic crimes, violent underground fighting rings, bad decisions, and failures—the coarseness of which are juxtaposed by Stéphanie's rebirth and hard-won confidence, achieved in large part by the healing powers of her and Alain's booty call arrangement. By stringing together these shabby elements and wringing out the little positives within them, Audiard's managed to make romantic tropes feel like uncharted territory—a tactic that's exactly what love stories need to stay alive.