In “Rust and Bone,” director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) introduces us to two handicapped humans: Ali (Matthias Schoenarets), a transient street and kick-boxing fighter from Belgium, whose handicap is a social one. Ali, a walking bruise of a man, has been tossed upon city’s streets with little education. In adulthood, he has made money slugging it out in back alley money bouts, and arrives on this last doorstep hungry for life to color.

Ali has migrated by thumb, rail and foot to Antibes, with his 5-year-old son whom he rescued from his drug-pusher girlfriend. He boards with his sister, a grocery clerk, and her truck-driver husband, and finds work as a security guard and bouncer, and eventually as an assistant to a man who installs cameras to catch errant employees. This job will pop up later as a sty in the eye of his sister.

Within a heartbeat away, there is Stephanie, (the incredible Marion Cotillard) part of a performing team that trains Orcas (killer whales) at a seaside resort show at Antibes on the Cote d’Azur. One night at a seafront bar, she gets into a squabble with a drunk, who pushes her into a glass door and cuts her up a bit. Lucky for her, the bouncer is our Ali, who throws the offender out and tends to her. He drives her home in her car to a live-in lover, who seems to be just another lout in a long train of part-time lovers.

Then life changes suddenly and brutally for Stephanie, when one of her trained Orcas goes wild, knocks her into the water and snaps off both her legs just below the knee. Now her natural moodiness turns to a bitter withdrawal behind shaded windows in a dark apartment.

For many, this would be an inevitable walk down into a boozy end, but Stephanie is clearly a woman from a better educated background, one she may well have rejected for reasons long forgotten. She’s smart enough to know she needs help, even in a comfortable apartment provided by insurance. She remembers Ali’s unsentimental view of life and his strength.

She has his number and makes a call. The pieces in the game move closer.

On the beach, Ali gets Stephanie back into the water for daily swims and piggy backs her from chair to bench and out on walks. He becomes a reluctant Tarzan to this damaged Jane and for both, gray skies grow bluer.

Soon she is on prosthetics and daily training, and life begins to change for both of them. She is drawn into his shady life of illegal bare-knuckle fights, and when his shady manager is arrested, Stephanie steps into the void and becomes his “fight pimp.” The little humor there is in the film pops up here, when the gangsters and goons that fill out this world, are stunned into respect for this mysterious woman on steel legs, who never smiles and makes bets like a bookie. In another brief flash of Stephanie’s dark humor, she has both legs tattooed with the words right and left.

Cotilard has so many shadings to bring out in so many different ways in each role she plays. In every part she takes, she has a facial vocabulary that speaks louder than words. No glance, no movement of hand or shift of shoulders is wasted. In one tense scene in a cafe with Ali after he has carelessly hurt her feelings, she looks at him for such a long a time before speaking, that we can feel his discomfort.

But forgiveness comes and the inevitable sex with it. Those moments are brief but beautifully done.

Schoenaerts is a delight to watch and is an up and coming European star with one solid film (“Bullhead”) behind him and four major films in pre-production.

What is most remarkable here is the computer-generated legs that aren’t there. The stumps are frighteningly real.

Audiard’s script is drawn from Craig Davidson’s short stories of the same name.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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