The two highest honors a filmmaker can receive are the Academy Award and Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. The Oscar has clout, the Palme d’Or éclat. Both signal peer recognition of jobs superbly done; both can advance the careers of the winners. One might add that both awards, any awards, are irrelevant to the quality of a film or a performance. They are valuable only as promotion for works that the mass of moviegoers would not hear of, let alone be persuaded to see, without these Good Filmmaking seals of approval.
In a way, each movie season’s Oscar buzz (possibly the most repellent phrase in the English language) begins in Cannes, which precedes Academy Award night by about nine months. Last year’s festival hosted the world premiere of the multiple Oscar winner The Artist, as well as the Best Picture nominees Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life. Thus this evening’s big entry in the Cannes Competition, Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os), has attracted attention less for what it is — a romance of rehabilitation, featuring splendid performances and outrageous plot contrivances — than for what it might be next February. The drum roll of publicity sounded on the red carpet here at the Grand Palais is meant to reach its climax on the red carpet next Oscar night.
Rust and Bone certainly arrives with a pedigree. Its director and cowriter is Jacques Audiard, whose prison drama A Prophet was voted the Grand Jury Prize (second place) here in 2009 before being nominated for the foreign-language Academy Award. More to the Oscar point, the film’s female lead is Marion Cotillard, the grave, luminous French star who earned an Academy Award playing Edith Piaf in La vie en rose, and was just the second performer to win a Best Actress Oscar for a performance in a foreign language after Sophia Loren in Two Women in 1962. Predictably, several reviewers blogging early on the Audiard-Cotillard film have cited Cotillard as a sure bet for an Oscar nomination.
(READ: TIME’s review of La Vie En Rose)
Eventually that may be the case because her role is the kind the Academy loves — a woman who suffers a horrible twist of fate and learns to fight back. Stéphanie, whom everyone calls Stéph, loves her job training orca whales and directing them in shows at the Marineland in Antibes, a few miles down the Côte d’Azur from Cannes. When an orca leaps out of the pool and crushes Stéph’s body, she loses both legs at the knee. She nurses her physical and psychological wounds alone, until deciding to call Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), whom everyone calls Ali. They met only once, when a fight broke out at The Annex night club and he, the bouncer, drove her home.
Ali has his own problems — nothing but. As Stéph is physically infirm, so Ali is an emotional cripple. A bruising figure with dreams of becoming an Ultimate Fighter, he has come south with his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure) to stay with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero). Ali has a responsibility he is hardy suited for. He can feed himself and Sam with the half-eaten sandwiches left by other travelers, and steal merchandise from a shop when he lands in Antibes. But his parenting skills are as limited as, frankly, his interest in his son. Ali would rather watch fights on video than keep an eye on the boy.
He does, however, keep watch on Stéph. Deflecting her anger — when he asks if anyone comes to help her, she replies, “Help me, what? Walk?” — he buoys the invalid’s spirits by taking her to the Cannes Croisette for a therapeutic swim in the Mediterranean. Gradually, they become erotic partners: she wants to know if her sexual apparatus “still works” and he, a veteran of one-night stands, amicably obliges. Stéph also develops a fascination for Ali’s budding side career as a fighter in illegal matches. In the middle of the film, Rust and Bone becomes a French Rocky, with Stéph as both the fighter’s girlfriend and his manager.
(LIST: The Top 10 Movies of the Millennium—Thus Far)
For all the grit of its milieu and the stark cinematographic contrasts of blinding brightness and midnight murkiness, this is a movie of the old school; Kings Row and An Affair to Remember leap to mind. Audiard and his cowriter Thomas Bidegain unashamedly employ all tricks of audience manipulation. Ali is taking a beating in one fight, until he sees Stéph step awkwardly into his sightline and he is inspired to win the match. Toward the end, the writers stoop to imperiling a child in order to push Ali toward true fatherhood.
Many a viewer will buy into these plot devices — they have certainly worked enough times before — and those who don’t should still be impressed by the two stars’ unforced intimacy. Schoenaerts, who played the crippled stud of the Oscar-nominated Bullhead, exudes a masculinity that is both effortless and troubled; he is the thug who treats Stéph like a woman. And Cotillard demonstrates again her eerie ability to write complex feelings on her face, as if from the inside, without grandstanding her emotions.
Her tenderest moments are not with Ali but with the whales. The first assurance of her recuperation comes as she sits in her wheelchair miming the hand signals she had used to direct the orcas. Later, visiting Marineland for the first time since her accident, she stands before the pool’s huge glass in front of an orca, hand-signaling the creature to follow her commands. It is the wordless communion of two souls — as different from each other as Stéph is from Ali — as the purest love story in this sometimes engrossing, sometimes exasperating romance. In these scenes, Cotillard shows she doesn’t need the validation of Cannes or the Academy. Her strong, subtle performance is gloriously winning on its own.
Update: TIME’s Richard Corliss Expands TIME’s List of Cinematic Greats