At first, "Rust and Bone" sounds like the work of a screenwriter trying way too hard. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) trains dancing orcas at Marineland until she loses both legs in a spectacular accident. Her friend Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a streetfighter newly saddled with a 5-year-old, Sam (Armand Verdure).
Now: What if these two started dating? You couldn't ask for a more random relationship, but "Rust and Bone" slowly, almost magically, gives it meaning, symbolism, even a kind of symmetry.
Inspired by Craig Davidson's short-story collection and written by director Jacques Audiard (2009's "A Prophet") with Thomas Bidegain, "Rust and Bone" is one of two films this year to deal with sex and disability. "The Sessions," about an immobilized man who hires a sex surrogate, treated the subject tenderly; "Rust and Bone" does not. For one thing, Ali is not a trained therapist but a roughneck with the social graces of a forest animal. He may be sleeping with Stephanie out of desperation, but so what? At least there's no pity involved. What's more, Ali is not exactly gentle with her, and there's something oddly respectful about that.
Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") is terrific as Stephanie -- we feel all her small indignities and moments of triumph -- but Schoenaerts, a 35-year-old Belgian unfamiliar to most Americans, is a revelation. His Ali is a charismatic brute with shades of Brando's Stanley Kowalski, but he's also funny, kind, stupid, selfish and, in one harrowing scene involving little Sam, heartbreaking.
The film ends a little too neatly, but by then Cotillard and Schoenaerts have developed a steamy, complicated chemistry that makes their odd characters seem real and alive. Implausible as it seems, "Rust and Bone" is one of the most convincing romances to come along in years.
PLOT A double amputee and a bare-knuckle boxer begin an unlikely romance.
CAST Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts
BOTTOM LINE Two phenomenal performances drive this frank, funny, moving love story. In French with English subtitles.