Director Jacques Audiard changes tack after the Oscar-nominated A Prophet for this story of an emotionally crippled man (Matthias Schoenaerts) bonding with Marion Cotillard's theme park whale trainer. However, it's only after she is horrendously injured in an accident that their true feelings are allowed to show.
"Bare knuckle fighter finds love with a disabled whale trainer." That's how you pitch a movie.
Ali (Schoenaerts) is a former boxer and reluctant father to a five year old son he barely knows or understands. Worried about the mother's involvement in drugs, Ali takes the boy to Antibes to stay with his aunt, Ali's estranged sister.
While working as a bouncer at a local club, Ali meets Stephanie (Cotillard), a trainer of killer whales at the local Marineland. They make an immediate connection.
But when a terrible accident in the pool requires Stephanie's legs to be amputated, these two souls, damaged in different ways, forge a mutual relationship of trust, need and desire.
The exploration of a young woman coming to terms with her disability and a man searching for focus in his life make for a compelling first act, and this is where the film is at its strongest.
However, when Ali starts bare knuckle boxing to supplement his security jobs, the narrative begins to falter.
It's a frequent and lazy criticism that states "not a lot happens". This is certainly not something that can be levelled at Rust And Bone.
Subsequent plot contrivances pile up alarmingly, delivering several major incidents that increasingly dilute the power and impact of the simple, effective drama of the earlier scenes. The melodrama quickly overwhelms the brilliant naturalism of the two leads.
Cotillard is excellent, as always, as the woman initially shattered by the scale of her loss, particularly affecting in early scenes at the hospital. However, it's Schoenaerts who is the emotional hub of the film, absolutely sensational as the hulking, vulnerable presence whose actions so often undo his best intentions.
Despite exceptional cinematography, music, and brilliant performances throughout, the film lacks the believable dramatic arc of director Jacques Audiard's previous offering A Prophet.
Unnecessary over-plotting prevents Rust and Bone reaching the same heights and, for all its whale-watching, depths.