‘Rust and Bone’ a smart, special fairy tale

Two damaged people whose compatibility seems even unlikelier than today’s Mayan-predicted apocalypse share a superbly evolving bond in “Rust and Bone,” the latest grit-and-grace drama from French writer-director Jacques Audiard. The potentially ridiculous is made engrossing by the director’s tonal mixology and  exceptional actors.

Audiard (“A Prophet,” “Read My Lips”) makes conventionally structured but unexpectedly affecting dramas in which rough men realize the humanity beneath their brutality. He continues on that track, while upping the melodrama, in this Antibes, France-set tale loosely adapted from stories by Craig Davidson.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a short-tempered ex-boxer with a 5-year-old son (Armand Verdure) he can’t relate to, moves in with his sister (Corinne Masiero) and begins working as a nightclub bouncer.

At work, Ali meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a marine-park orca trainer. He tells her she’s dressed “like a whore” and, in some irony-filled foreshadowing by Audiard, checks out her legs.

Soon, a whale-related catastrophe causes Stephanie to lose both legs. Perhaps knowing that this man of seemingly zero sensitivity won’t pity her, she phones Ali. He arrives and, seeking sun, wheels her into the daylight and carries her into the sea.

Their relationship becomes sexual, romantic and meaningful. Ali helps Stephanie feel physical and vital again. Stephanie helps Ali recognize his capacity for caring. She accompanies him to the illegal boxing gigs he does for money and fun. During one, her presence inspires a heavily pummeled Ali toward victory.

Yes, you’ll need serious disbelief suspension to buy some of this. The film’s disability drama and redemptive journey cliches include an incident involving a child’s fate. The use of pop music to enhance impact can feel manipulative.

But Audiard combines the naturalistic and the romantic so beautifully that the film never becomes “Beauty and the Beast” meets the Dardennes. By keeping the emotion real, and with intensely raw, exquisitely textured performances, the movie triumphs as an intimate, unusual love story.

Schoenaerts is stirringly multidimensional in portraying Ali’s transformation. Cotillard, as a more sketchily and problematically defined character (basically, Stephanie likes violent, visceral male behavior), conveys desire, independence and courage with quiet power.

Thanks to such merits, we embrace what is essentially a fairy tale that could easily have been sheer hokum. Between the familiar plot dots, something special is going on.

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