Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) is a marine animal trainer who works with killer whales at a theme park, entertaining guests with a water spectacle. Alain, aka Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a professional tough guy, a bouncer/security guard who blunders from job to job with his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) in tow.
Both Stéphanie and Ali are at loose ends and headed for a crackup. Stéphanie gets into drunken scrapes in clubs. Mono-syllabic Ali, now residing with his sister and her husband and trying to care for Sam, is reduced to competing in bare-knuckle prize fights in vacant lots for chump change. Things change for Stéphanie when she suffers a workplace calamity and loses both her legs at the knee. The two bottomed-out characters meet and form an alliance that's purely physical, even animal, at first.
What does she see in this guy? Part of the answer to that is in Stéphanie's face, in the mix of gratitude and apprehension she displays as she learns to perform physical therapy and comes to grips with living the rest of her life with nothing below her tattooed thighs (the digital special effects are remarkable). Cotillard, so dazzling in parts that called for romantic defiance of authority (La Vie en Rose, A Very Long Engagement), takes romance and defiance to new heights this time out. Stéphanie was never particularly adorable when able-bodied. Now, on the mend, she's suddenly vulnerable and open to love.
Ali, a bad-luck dumbass who punches walls when his plans don't work out — they never quite work out before he meets Stéphanie — is more than just the catalyst of Stéphanie's recovery. The two of them are studies in repressed feeling. Their damped-down emotions suddenly blossom when they make furious love, and all the hurt melts away. Just like in the movies.
Writer-director Jacques Audiard specializes in stories of personal redemption with rough edges (Read My Lips, The Beat that My Heart Skipped). With Rust and Bone (original title: De rouille et d'os — a tough title to translate figuratively), Audiard splashes two powerful personalities together in a hard-bitten, working-class milieu in the South of France. It's an exercise that hits us harder in the head than in the heart, but it packs a wallop nonetheless.