LOVE IS messy and chaotic in Jacques Audiard's grimly compelling romance about two damaged souls who are thrown together just as their lives are falling apart.
Shot without a single drop of sentiment but a great deal of empathy, Rust And Bone captures the passion and roller-coaster emotions of the wayward characters as they wrestle with their predicaments.
Marion Cotillard, who won an Academy Award as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose and starred alongside Christian Bale this summer in The Dark Knight Rises, is a strong contender for another golden statuette. She delivers a mesmerising and emotionally raw performance here as an aquatic trainer facing adversity.
Luminous big screen beauties, who are physically or emotionally disfigured for their art, have always been catnip to Oscar voters. Equally powerful is co-star Matthias Schoenaerts, who catalyses electrifying sexual chemistry with Cotillard in their on-screen couplings.
Sex scenes are sweaty, frenetic and almost animalistic - a tangle of limbs to mirror the cascade of emotions that consumes the couple and propels them down an unexpected path towards something that might be called a relationship.
Stephanie (Cotillard) trains killer whales but her close working relationship with these majestic creatures ends when one orca severs her legs, resulting in a double amputation.
An earlier one-night stand with hulking Belgian brute Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) - a single father who doesn't know how to care for his six-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) - sows the seeds of an unconventional romance.
He has come to Antibes to forge a better life for the boy and is crashing with his estranged sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) and her husband, Foued (Mourad Frarema).
Ali ekes out a meagre living as a nightclub bouncer, making extra money in bare-knuckle brawls that leave him beaten to a bloody pulp.
When he encounters Stephanie after her accident, his complete lack of pity is a tonic. "You want to make love? You call, you tell me," Ali tells her matter of factly.
Adapted from a short story collection by Craig Davidson, Rust And Bone eschews crocodile tears by observing Stephanie and Ali's dalliances with cool detachment.
Cotillard's vulnerability contrasts with Schoenaerts's rugged masculinity, and their scenes together ring true as Ali literally carries her towards physical rehabilitation. "You OK, Robocop?" he asks tenderly as Stephanie acclimatises to her prosthetic limbs.
Audiard directs with aplomb - the scene in which Stephanie loses her legs, shot from the bottom of the crystal blue whale pool, is both beautiful and shocking.
He delivers another sharp jolt in the closing minutes, shattering any illusions that there is anything more than a pin prick of hope at the end of a very long tunnel for both characters.