Movies about characters struggling to recover from traumatic events tend toward the sappy, if not the actively dreary. So it’s natural to be a little apprehensive when you learn that the French drama Rust and Bone tells the story of a feisty orca trainer, Stéphanie (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard), who loses both of her legs just above the knee when disaster strikes during a performance at France’s equivalent of Sea World. Just beforehand, Stéphanie had met a surly brute of a single dad named Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts); when she impulsively calls him—apparently because his demeanor suggested that he’s not the pitying type—and the pair begin a tentative relationship, veteran cinephiles are likely to hunker down and await the inevitable healing, complete with inspirational speeches and stirring music.
Thankfully, Rust and Bone has more on its mind. Directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet), who adapted a book of short stories by Canadian author Craig Davidson, the film introduces us to Ali first, focusing on his efforts to rebuild his life; we see Stéphanie almost entirely through his eyes. And when she zips through the stages of grief with lightning speed, appearing to be fully recovered (and rocking a nifty pair of prosthetic legs), it becomes apparent that Audiard, in collaboration with his superb lead actors, has done a masterful job of misdirection. This is, indeed, the tale of a horribly disabled person who gradually learns to live again. But the horribly disabled person isn’t who we assume it is. Refreshing.