"I'm hungry," are the first words spoken in French director Jacques Audiard's tough-as-nails love story Rust and Bone. The line comes from a little boy named Sam whose apparently homeless father Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) proceeds to feed him from scraps he finds on a passenger train. It's a fitting start for a film that chooses personal tragedy as its real starting point and goes on to depict the modern world as a relentlessly harsh and pitiless place. Everyone's hungry in Rust and Bone, but it's only through raw physicality that any of the movie's characters find meaning and rise above pain and emptiness.
On paper, Rust and Bone is the sort of melodrama few people find appealing. It stars Marion Cotillard, the immensely talented Oscar-winning French actress (for La Vie En Rose) who recently expanded her American audience with key roles in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. She plays Stephanie, an unhappy orca trainer at a cheesy marine park who loses her legs below the knees in a freak accident. Former boxer Ali becomes a nightclub bouncer, then begins fighting in dangerous bare-knuckle bouts designed to separate violence-hungry gamblers from their cash. His straightforward, almost childlike view of the world keeps him free of emotional entanglements and provides Stephanie with the perspective she needs to overcome post-accident depression. Will these two damaged souls wind up together? Is that a movie anyone really wants to see?
Audiard manages to make Rust and Bone interesting, first by refusing to indulge in the sentiment that lesser directors would extract from such a story. The film is set in the idyllic and sun-drenched south of France, but Audiard reveals the same strip malls, big-box stores and tourist traps that blight similar stateside locales. Stephanie and Ali inhabit a working-class world where happy endings are few. (Ali moonlights as an installer of hidden cameras used to spy on employees and bust unions.) The visual style is stark but impressionistic. When Stephanie emerges back into a largely indifferent world, the beaches are lush, but the light is harsh and glaring.
Both Cotillard and Schoenaerts deliver emotionally dry performances that support Audiard's organic realism. They give their characters' epic struggles the weight of authenticity, and the intimacy they build feels earned. Remarkably, Cotillard's especially moving turn was abetted by computer-generated imagery — the illusion of her physical loss was created digitally in post-production, leaving her free to focus on her character's inner life. The results are completely convincing. Rust and Bone isn't always easy to watch, but Cotillard makes the tradeoff worthwhile. — KEN KORMAN