'Rust and Bone' (R)

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts star in 'Rust and Bone'.

Had Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone kept its focus on the unorthodox relationship between its two central characters, the movie might have been a moving portrait of trust, regret and resilience. Director of the acclaimed A Prophet, Audiard sets up an interesting if slightly contrived scenario that grows more intriguing as the first hour or so passes. But the movie wanders off course in the final act, as if none of its three screenwriters could quite figure out how to end it.

Fortunately Audiard had the good sense to cast Marion Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception), who won an Oscar for her portrayal of singer Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose in 2007, and her low-key brilliance makes Rust and Bone worth watching. The film centers on Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts of Bullhead), an out-of-work amateur fighter who travels to the south of France with his son to live with his sister. He cares for his son but is not the best of fathers; he’s far too careless with the little boy, often too rough, just as he’s brusque and casual about his sexual encounters.

One night at his job as a bouncer, he breaks up a fight and discovers the bloodied Stéphanie (Cotillard) in the middle of it. He accompanies her home and meets her boyfriend; nothing much happens that night. But then Stéphanie, who trains killer whales at the Marineland aquarium nearby, suffers a horrendous accident. When she gets out of the hospital, stuck in a wheelchair, she calls Ali (ever the opportunist, he has left her with his number) and they strike up a friendship fueled by her need to fight isolation and his casual acceptance of her new disability. Never for a moment does Ali lapse into pity, and so Stéphanie can’t really feel sorry for herself, either.

Things change between them once sex begins to play a part in their encounters — Ali hasn’t even considered giving up his one-night stands, and Stéphanie is not happy about it — and shortly thereafter the story begins to drift from their strange little affair. Less believable side plots begin to intrude. Ali has been making quick cash in unofficial, bare-knuckle fights, and when his manager has to leave town, Stéphanie ends up taking over. The movie doesn’t dwell on this development, but it still feels patently ridiculous, a jaunty piece of fantasy in what up until now has been a grimly realistic film.

But Audiard still delivers breathtaking moments, such as a scene in which Stéphanie returns to Marineland to visit her friends — including the orca she trained. As she puts the creature through its paces, using the gestures that are second nature to her, Rust and Bone stirs honest emotion. The film peters out more than it ends, but Cotillard makes you feel every bit of Stéphanie’s difficult recovery and forces you to admire the power of human resilience.

Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts.

Director: Jacques Audiard.

Screenwriters: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Craig Davidson.

Producers: Jacques Audiard, Martine Cassinelli, Pascal Caucheteux.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 120 minutes. Strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence, language. In French with English subtitles. Playing in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Arts Cinema; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.