Rust and Bone may be the least sentimental love story I've ever seen to still qualify as a cinematic romance. Director Jacques Audiard presents a combustible love affair between two damaged, abrasive individuals without giving the story a Hollywood sheen. A more conventional film, like the multiple-Oscar-nominee Silver Linings Playbook, presents a similarly unlikely relationship, but its lead characters are both broken-hearted romantics who seemed fated to end up together. In Rust and Bone, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenarts play proud, combative, and irresponsible lovers who seem as likely to hit each other as kiss each other.
The film's first scenes follow Schoenaerts' Ali, an unemployed kickboxer, and his young son Sam (Armand Verdure) as they make their way to the South of France and scrape together meals from the cast-off food on a passenger train. A criminal enterprise has put Sam's mother out of the picture, and Ali clearly proves unprepared, both financially and emotionally, to take on the role of a single father.
Crashing at his sister's home on the French coast, Ali parlays his brawn to employment as a night watchman and a club bouncer. One night while working as the latter, he encounters Stéphanie (Cotillard), an argumentative, sluttishly dressed beauty who needs a ride home. Stéphanie shows no signs of being intimidated by Ali, possibly because she's experienced working with bigger, deadlier mammals as an orca trainer at a local aquatic theme park.
Rust and Bone takes a bizarre twist when one of Stéphanie's orca performances goes wrong. Audiard shows the disaster in flashes, including a haunting shot from the bottom of the pool, which reveals shattered, sinking pieces of the Marineland stage, followed by Stéphanie's bleeding, motionless body. She eventually awakens in an empty hospital room to discover both of her legs have been severed at the knee.
When finally released from hospital, Stéphanie calls Ali, not in spite of his tough, taciturn demeanor, but because if it. Rust and Bone implies that Stéphanie likes Ali for his alpha male forcefulness and lack of touchy-feely sensitivity. Ali may be quick to throw punches, but Schoenaerts never portrays the character as a hateful brute. He seems oblivious to the feelings of people around him, which Stéphanie prefers over well-meaning souls who reflexively treat her as a victim.
Ali shrugs away her injuries, encouraging her to take an ocean swim despite her lack of a bathing suit. He's similarly matter-of-fact when Stéphanie wonders aloud about her future sex life, and he suggests they start up a friends-with-benefits arrangement. It's hard not to notice that Ali's vigorous couplings, with Stéphanie as well as one-night stands earlier in the film, resemble his sweaty bouts with his fellow boxers at gyms and back alleys. Occasionally the film uses CGI effects to digitally erase Cotillard's legs — imagine the Lt. Dan scenes from Forrest Gump, but with nude sex.
When Stéphanie gets involved in Ali's burgeoning pastime of black-market, no-holds-barred boxing matches, Bruce Springsteen's low, insistent "State Trooper" growls on the soundtrack. It's like Ali and Stéphanie get off on being badasses together, which seems as sexy for the couple to experience as it is for the audience to watch. It may be an unstable foundation for a long-term relationship, but it also makes Rust and Bone a compelling, unpredictable story.