Alain, known as Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), has taken his young son away from his mother and Ali's ex to start a new life with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) who works in a supermarket. To reach there they both have to hitchhike, as money is far from plentiful and along the way they resort to scavenging for whatever food they can find, but before long they are in Antibes where they stay at Anna's and Ali gets a job as a nightclub bouncer. His real ambition in life is to become a professional fighter, but for now unprofessional will have to do, though before that he meets someone who could just change his life...
French creator of uncompromising drama Jacques Audiard was the man behind Rust and Bone, or De rouille et d'os as it was known originally, and gave every indication he was not going to compromise here either for any delicate audience sensibilities as his career moved onwards. He described it in his native language as a "melo trash", that is a gritty melodrama, and you couldn't say he did succeed in that aim, though many were wont to point out that was not so much up to his script as it was the excellent performances he got out of his two leads which you would rightly observe truly held the movie together.
Schoenaerts was the newcomer here, or he was to most audiences in spite of having appeared in movies for a good ten years or more by the stage this was made, evidently forging a promising path as a sort of Belgian Tom Hardy, and he more than held his ground against one of the heavyweight acting talents of French cinema in Marion Cotillard who played his on and off again love interest Stéphanie. She works in a whale sanctuary water park where she looks after killer whales and entertains the tourists in this seaside town by assisting in the shows the park puts on as the whales leap and somersault for their pleasure. But people actually enjoying themselves is not the done thing for Audiard, particularly at the expense of a collection of animals.
Therefore it all goes horribly wrong when an accident occurs during one performance, though the director was oblique about what exactly happened - one minute it's all going swimmingly (so to speak) and the next a whale has crashed into a platform and Stéphanie is in the water with blood streaming from her legs. Was she crushed in the incident or did - yikes! - one of the beasts chomp off her limbs? We never find out, but what we do see is her awakening in the hospital as an amputee, and understandably upset, meaning what we had here was one of those disability dramas where one character must overcome her tragedy and learn to live again and so forth, a plot already well-worn by the time Rust and Bone got around to it.
What this had was a romantic angle to bring out the emotions, as if the events it portrayed were not emotional enough, as Stéphanie had met Ali in that nightclub where he was working and he had rescued her from getting beaten up, taken her home and left his number should she need any more assistance - and also because Ali is hoping for a sexual encounter which he has been advised will happen if he plays the nice guy with the punters. Make no mistake, he can be irresponsible, and Audiard had a rather contrived way of pushing the audience's buttons whether it be showing the son neglected or his father beating an opponent in a bare knuckle fight for money. The manner in which he always went for the big effects while retaining the patina of serious drama evidently was fine for many viewers, but there was a sense of being bullied into responding to one damn harrowing setpiece after another. What kept you watching were those leads who sustained a focus that wasn't there otherwise. Music by Alexandre Desplat.
[The Studio Canal Blu-ray has a making of and a special effects featurette, plus a trailer as extras.]