A crude love story about humans, animals, and the scant qualities separating the two, Rust and Bone runs a complicated bait and switch on its audience, passing ostensible exploitation fodder (double amputee finds sexual reawaking in the arms of a rough-around-the-edges he-man) through a high-toned prestige filter. It takes material that should be patently ridiculous—most prominently the spectacle of Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) losing her legs during a Katy Perry-soundtracked Sea World-style spectacular gone terribly awry—and simultaneously under and overplays it, tempering the sticky stuff with a gentle examination of twinned physical and psychological wounds. The air of surface refinement allows Jacques Audiard to more subtly press our buttons, masking the coarseness of his material while nudging up the emotional amplitude.
The film opens with a flurry of abstract imagery, visual metaphors that will eventually serve the key to unlocking its bluntly symbolic subtext, ostensibly concerned with the cumulative scars that mark the human soul. The story involves two damaged humans: Stéphanie, whose accident only exacerbates troubles already simmering on the surface, and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sometimes-savage, sometimes-gentle brute suddenly charged with the care of his young son. Following a chance encounter prior to her accident, the bedridden Stéphanie contacts Ali, resulting in what amounts to a dual-sided spin on the Beauty and the Beats fable, with each party tasked with saving the other from the threat of their own intrinsic atavism.
The two eventually forge some semblance of a romantic relationship, one that starts off at a purely animalistic level, with Ali providing sex whenever he's OP (text-message slang for "operational"), but predictably grows into something more. The idea here is that people are inherently incomplete and inevitably damaged, forcing them to unite by forming grafts out of shared emotional scar tissue. This bleak view of romantic entanglement might seem to afford a new angle on classic themes of love and renewal, but any hints of innovation are only further evidence of Audiard's proven ability at gussying up salvaged concepts. Still, the film isn't nearly as adept at masking its recycled genre conventions as the markedly superior A Prophet.
The main problem is that Rust and Bone leans so heavily on a foundation of simple, repetitive imagery, a sparse collection of visual symbols which ultimately ends up granting it a weird similarity to The Wizard of Oz (she has no legs, he has no heart). Still, there's a pleasing raw energy to the movie, best exhibited in a series of grimy street fights, where Ali sacrifices his body to his dreams of becoming a successful MMA fighter. Schoenaerts, who portrayed a neutered minotaur of a man in Bullhead, does solid work in a similar role here, developing an affecting image of Ali as a monster in need of a master, with Stéphanie's eventual status as his manager mirroring her initial role as a trainer of killer whales. The characters in Rust and Bone may eventually prove that they're not animals, but the things that separate them are the sort of marks and memories which never stop hurting.