‘Rust and Bone’ defines romance in its own way

The movie poster for “Rust and Bone.”

Romantic but pitiless, fearlessly emotional as well as edgy, “Rust and Bone” is a powerhouse. It’s the kind of risky venture only a consummate filmmaker could manage, and then only with the help of actors who are daring and accomplished. With director Jacques Audiard in charge and Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts as stars, all the pieces have fallen exactly into place.

Although “Rust and Bone” is old fashioned and sentimental at its core, this film’s idea of romance is not everyone’s. The story details the relationship between an arrogant trainer of orcas whose world is shattered when she loses her legs and a brutish street fighter whose thoughts are exclusively about himself. It’s set in a bleak and violent contemporary France.

Audiard, whose last film was the exceptional, Oscar-nominated “A Prophet,” has always been interested in extreme situations and the people who make their way in them.

Having constructed what is essentially a two-character drama, Audiard has been fortunate in the actors who bring it to life. Cotillard, a lead actress winner for “La Vie en Rose,” and Belgian actor Schoenaerts convincingly convey a range of emotions that is way out of the ordinary.

It is Schoenaerts’ Ali we encounter first, a former boxer walking with unwavering determination and trailed by his 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), an uncertain child he barely knows. These two end up in Antibes, in France’s south, staying with Ali’s sister Anna (Corinne Masiero).

Ali is a bruiser, physically and psychologically, and Schoenaerts expertly creates a detached, self-involved man no one gets close to.

He signs on as a bouncer at a hot club, where he encounters Stephanie (Cotillard). An angry, on-edge woman who enjoys provoking men, Stephanie is as much trouble as Ali. He meets her in his professional capacity because she has incited a brawl in which she has been knocked out.

After driving her home, Ali, takes note of some photos of her training killer whales at Antibes Marineland. He leaves his number as a reflex.

Then, quickly, unimaginably, Stephanie loses her legs in an orca attack. While state-of-the art CGI work makes her diminished body undeniably real, it is Cotillard’s magnificent acting that makes what has happened to her believable.

Stephanie’s no-holds-barred hysteria, followed by desperation, pain and despair, is communicated largely without words in a performance that is remarkable for vulnerability thrillingly conveyed.

While Stephanie is dealing with a radically changed life, Ali is shifting his focus. Through Martial (Belgian actor Bouli Lanners), a sleazy individual he meets via security work, Ali gets involved in illegal street fighting.

Then, there is a phone call from Stephanie. It has been months since the attack, and, likely sensing that there’s no room for pity in Ali’s distant, emotionless makeup, she asks him to visit.

It is the business of “Rust and Bone” to take us along as this atypical relationship unfolds, to draw us in as both Stephanie and Ali attempt to figure out what is possible for them on emotional levels neither one has been comfortable with before.