“Rust and Bone” features yet another fearsomely committed performance from Marion Cotillard, a charismatic turn by Matthias Schoenaerts that confirms his breakthrough in last year’s “Bullhead,” inventive and attentive direction from the gifted director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet,” “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”), dazzling cinematography, the hushed hipsterisms of Bon Iver on the soundtrack, and a novel setting. All good things. So why does the film seem to evaporate from one’s memory an hour after the credits roll?
For all the surface filigree, the bones of “Rust and Bone” are familiar: Two misfits beaten down by life find themselves attracted to each other and resist that attraction until the expected third-act difficulties and climactic resolution. We’ve been here before, even if we haven’t specifically been here: Antibes, amputees, killer whales, and kickboxing.
Well, yes, that here does keep you watching. “Rust and Bone” introduces Schoenaerts’s Ali as a homeless single dad (to young Sam, played by Armand Verdure) who drifts into the French resort town on the Cote D’Azur and crashes with his working-class sister (Corinne Masiero). Handsome, immature, vaguely threatening, Ali’s an excellent club bouncer and no one’s idea of a responsible father.
Stéphanie (Cotillard) is a hard-living trainer of killer whales at the local Marineland. (If that seems baroquely, uniquely French, it’s worth noting that the screenplay by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain is based on a short story collection by Canadian writer Craig Davidson.) She and Ali meet at the club; he drives her home and casually puts her pompous boyfriend in his place. There’s an accident at the water park, filmed by cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine with jagged beauty, after which Stéphanie wakes in the hospital to find her legs bitten off. Cotillard’s performance in that scene alone is worth the price of admission: She makes what could be a bizarre joke seem terrible and present.
“Rust and Bone” is thus about two castoffs who comfort each other without realizing how tightly they cling. Reconnecting, Ali takes Stéphanie swimming in the ocean, and the look on Cotillard’s face as her character realizes she won’t be denied her single greatest pleasure is something to see.
Her second-greatest pleasure — sex — returns as well. Ali is happy to give Stéphanie pity-shags as a way to disguise his growing infatuation, and the film swoons with the orange sunset hues of their lovemaking. In the rest of his life, Ali’s a screw-up: A wannabe kickboxer and a careless dad, he causes the sister to lose her job and womanizes without thinking how it might hurt Stéphanie. You can see the trajectory of the character’s awakening and, as we get into the final scenes, you can even see where it’s going to land.
Audiard clearly loves his crazy lovers, but as a director he lacks the craziness that would ennoble them. Drawn to extreme characters — the criminal pianist in “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” the young convict who becomes a jailhouse king in “A Prophet” — he frames their struggles with breathtaking care and creativity but little filmmaking madness. That approach gives us insight into stories we’ve never heard before but comes up short with more well-worn genres.
The leads save it, particularly Cotillard, who once again subverts her own glamour with ferocious lack of ego. The movie itself only occasionally matches her intensity. The most remarkable image is Stéphanie standing silhouetted before an underwater window, a killer whale appearing out of the blue to seemingly meld with her against the glass. It’s a silent, majestic moment — one of the few times in “Rust and Bone” that we comprehend how this crippled mermaid must feel.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.