On paper, "Rust and Bone" sounds like a particularly bad Lifetime movie.

A brutish single father, who is not a particularly good dad to his young son and spends much of his time on street fighting, somehow finds a relationship with a lovely, sophisticated whale trainer who loses both her legs in an accident. They are two broken souls, but somehow they manage to find a life together.

That short description is enough to trigger the gag reflex in almost anyone. But basic storyline aside, "Rust and Bone" turns out to be a rather compelling and moving drama, thanks to some sharp and thoughtful direction by Jacques Audiard and fine performances by Matthias Schoenaerts as the fighter and, in particular, Marion Cotillard as the trainer. In fact, Cotillard's work is so courageous and nuanced that it is worth seeing "Rust and Bone" just to watch her light up the screen.

This film image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Marion Cotillard in a scene from "Rust and Bone." (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics)
This film image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Marion Cotillard in a scene from "Rust and Bone." (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics)

Much of the film is set in Antibes on the glorious Cote d'Azur in southern France. This is the part of the Cote d'Azur that tourists never see -- the rough, working class area where life is a struggle.

Ali (Schoenaerts), a former prizefighter, and his son, Sam (Armand Verdure), have fled to Antibes after Ali liberates Sam from the boy's mother, who, apparently, had been using the child to peddle drugs. The two arrive with no money and no prospects, only a place to stay at the home of Ali's sister Anna (Corinne Masiero).

It isn't much, and Anna is, at best, somewhat dubious about having Ali around, although she loves Sam. She realizes that life has been so hard on Ali, such a struggle, that he no longer really cares about anyone around him -- not even Sam.

After Anna helps Ali get a job with a security firm, he becomes a bouncer at a local club, which is where he meets Stephanie (Cotillard) under less than pleasant circumstances. She has gotten involved in a fight at the club; he offhandedly humiliates her live-in boyfriend. But he gives her his phone number; she doesn't toss it away but hangs on to it.

Weeks later, Stephanie is involved in a freak, horrific accident at the Sea World-esque amusement park where she works. It is a stunning sequence, set in part to Katy Perry's "Firework." Even more gripping is the scene where Stephanie discovers that the accident has forced the doctors to amputate both of her legs. The look on Cotillard's face, the despair in her eyes, is mesmerizing. (The digital removal of Cotillard's legs for most of the film is an amazing special-effects achievement.)

On what seems like a whim, Stephanie finds Ali's number and calls him. She sees in him a man who won't care that she is a double amputee, won't pity her circumstances. They end up gradually building a relationship, including raw sex, that underlines how desperately they really need each other.

This film image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Marion Cotillard, left, and Matthias Schoenaerts  in a scene from "Rust and Bone." (AP
This film image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Marion Cotillard, left, and Matthias Schoenaerts in a scene from "Rust and Bone." (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics)

Audiard, whose last film was the very good "A Prophet," lets his story play out against the backdrop of the realities of contemporary France, although the sociopolitical nuances probably won't resonate with American audiences. What will is the intensity of the relationship between Stephanie and Ali -- one that is made real by the naturalistic performances of Cotillard and Schoenaerts.

Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor, is as formidable a presence here as he was in "Bullhead," a foreign-language Oscar nominee last year. Cotillard has already won one Oscar for her transformation into Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," and she has found an American following with her work in "Midnight in Paris," "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises." But her work in "Rust and Bone" is just brilliant, with a deglamorized Cotillard building an extraordinary portrait of a damaged human being.

If "Rust and Bone" has a notable problem, it is an ending that, while satisfying in its way, doesn't really fit convincingly with the rest of the film. Still, this is a vivid bit of moviemaking that it is hard-edged and often difficult to watch, but also quite life-affirming.

Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.

'rust and bone'

* * *

Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, violence and language)
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts and Armand Verdure
Director: Jacques
Audiard
Running time: 2 hours. In French with subtitles.