In almost any other year, Marion Cotillard would have been a certain Oscar nominee for the French film "Rust and Bone." But she likely was squeezed out of the best actress race by 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis from "Beasts of the Southern Wild" or 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva from "Amour."
No matter. She delivers an emotionally raw and complex portrayal in "Rust and Bone."
One minute, her character is choreographing the moves of whales at a marine park to Katy Perry's "Firework" and the next, she's plunged into the water during a dreadful accident. When she wakes up in the hospital, she looks down at the gauze where her knees used to be.
4 stars = Outstanding
Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts.
R for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language.
Jolted by sickening fear, panic and confusion, she tumbles out of bed. Crying and crawling along the floor, she asks, "What did you do with my legs? What did you do with my legs?"
Ms. Cotillard, known for winning the best actress Oscar for 2007's "La Vie en Rose" and her role of the mysterious Miranda Tate in "The Dark Knight Rises," is only half of the powerful pair in this film from Jacques Audiard ("A Prophet," "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," "Read My Lips").
"Bullhead" star Matthias Schoenaerts is Ali, a bouncer turned bare-fisted brawler, an overgrown juvenile who finds himself with custody of his 5-year-old son who had been used by his mother to smuggle drugs.
Ali first comes to the aid of Ms. Cotillard's Stephanie during a nightclub tussle, which leaves her with a bloody nose and bruised leg. Never one to mince words or exercise diplomacy, he says, "You don't dress like that just to dance. ... You're dressed like a whore."
He leaves his phone number with her, neither of them imagining the circumstances that will motivate her to call him.
"Rust and Bone" was inspired by two stories in a collection by Craig Davidson -- one about a boxer with brittle hands, the other about a male trainer whose left leg is chomped off by a whale -- which Mr. Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain took as jumping off points, altered substantially and wove together into a screenplay.
This is a polarizing movie that critics, especially, seem to love or hate. The Washington Post called it "one of the most transportingly romantic movies of the year" while EW magazine consigned it to its list of worst movies of 2012.
Count me in the camp of supporters; it was No. 11 on my list of best movies of 2012. It's a gritty, memorable story about animal instincts, brute strength, the working poor, second chances at love, and bodies and spirits broken, battered and, just maybe, healing.
In French with English subtitles. Opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.