Rust and Bone screened at the Canberra International Film Festival. It was the Australian premiere.Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard’s (A Prophet) tragic and emotionally charged romantic drama and redemption story is an intensely resonating human study featuring a pair of astounding performances.

The brutish Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts, Bullhead) – all testosterone, arms, fists and brash physicality – has just taken his son away from his irresponsible mother and has travelled a long distance to start a new life.

After some minimalist living, they eventually shack up with his sister and Ali takes on whatever jobs he can find. He works security at an electronics store, bounces at nightclubs and because of his fearless lease of life, takes up bare knuckle boxing when a work colleague, who runs an illegal racket, poaches him. He frustrates his sister and utilises tough love on his son, whom he often neglects.

It is at a nightclub that he meets another social misfit, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard, La vie en rose), an orca trainer and choreographer of a local sea world show. Having been assaulted by a male club patron, Ali escorts her home. Not long after, Stephanie suffers a horrific accident and turns to Ali for strength, company and care.

It is a love story unlike any other and Audiard has infused it with many affecting moments of heart-wrenching tragedy, raw emotion and tenderness. Most, but not all, of his attempts to heighten the impact through his visual style (and audio accompaniments) hit the mark, but many leave an immovable imprint. The wonderful capture of Cotillard communicating with an orca in an underwater viewing room and her brave return to a nightclub and the ensuing drama, are examples of those that hit hard.

But, some of the narrative developments do stretch the realm of believability and there are plenty of questions posed by their attraction, questions some audiences will find hard to overlook being unanswered. Why, when struggling to cope with her post-debilitation, does Stephanie turn to a man she barely knows, a man who showed her compassion once but revealed no signs of being the person to entrust such responsibility? From what we have learned about Ali prior, he appears to be a man who doesn’t care about anyone so why does he extend such delicacy to this woman? We learn enough about these characters – and not necessarily in the conventional way – to understand.

One of the strongest themes in the film is the value a person has for their body. Proud Stephanie cherishes hers but loses the will to live when she learns that it doesn’t function the way it once did. Ali, on the other hand, is a hulking, heavy-set man who has built up his body; he is constantly engaging in testosterone fuelled behaviour, whether it is running, boxing, or having rigorous sex with random women. He plays fast and loose with his health, and risks serious injury willingly.

This is a concerning trait that Stephanie questions him about, and while I felt like she was initially appalled by this blatant disregard for his health, it transforms into a turn on and a brutish physicality she is fascinated by and admires. Ali and Stephanie’s relationship becomes intimate but Ali’s primal instincts take over and the idea of being responsible for someone, whether it is his son or his girlfriend, just doesn’t register with him. It takes the distressing sacrifice of his own body for him to be aware of that.

The two exceptional performances ensure that even the most preposterous of developments feel real. Cotillard reveals great fragility and devastation, but also immense courage and strength. I have never seen an actress cry on screen as convincingly as Cotillard. Schoenaerts traps his characters’ demons inside. He has compulsions that he struggles to control, but has evident respect for Stephanie. It is hard to describe why he is so impressive, but his work is not easily forgotten.

With striking visuals and an incredibly convincing recreation of serious injury, this raw blend of bruising brutality and tender compassion tells a tale of two broken souls who find unlikely comfort in one another. Relying on bold, unconventional storytelling and brave performances – and thankfully we have Audiard’s headstrong ambition and the awards-worthy skill of Cotillard and Schoenaerts - Rust and Bone offers plenty of reward.

[rating=4]

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22