The worst thing about Rust and Bone is that it was directed by Jacques Audiard, and that's also the best thing: the best, because it is nothing shy of miraculous that the director could navigate such difficult, borderline trashy material (whale trainer amputee meets, loves underground boxer who doesn't know how to be a good dad) without either sentationalising it or miring it in squishy bromides about family; worst, because as impressive as the film undeniably is, and as sturdy and affecting as the lead performances are, it's almost impossible not to look at Audiard's last feature, A Prophet (the emotional tenor and much of the style, especially the use of music, are very similar between the two), and then look at this one, and wonder, unenthusiastically, "oh, is that all?"

Yes, that is all, and on its own merits, Rust and Bone is still a darn good motion picture, a prickly character study that turns the form of a blandly warm and gooey melodrama against itself. Lessons are learned, and people who were almost smug about how closed-off they were from the rest of humanity are made to see that affection and companionship are the best things, but this is all done without treacle or weeping or violins whoring it up in the score. As in A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped before that, Audiard's most important trick as a director is to keep the camera just a touch back from the action, relative to what you'd expect, and to work with a limited palette of naturalistic colors, and the most invisibly unsteady of cameras: the result doesn't go all the way to "documentary" style narrative filmmaking, but it feels just slightly out of skew, and when it works right - nearly all of the time - we're very much aware of watching the characters without feeling like we're in with the characters. It is an observational aesthetic, I mean to say, and while Rust and Bone includes several more intimate moments (physically and emotionally) than, certainly, A Prophet, it doesn't feel any less clinical in its perspective. And this is to its benefit.

The two protagonists, whose stories quickly merge, are Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), newly returned the Mediterranean coast of France after a stretch in Belgium, looking to deposit his son, Sam (Armand Verdure) with his sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), while he hunts for work; and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), an orca trainer at a local amusement park, who first meets Ali at the club where he works as bouncer, when she ends up on the wrong end of a barfight. An accident at work leaves that pitches Stéphanie into the orca pool leaves her with both of her legs amputated below the knee - I had it in my head that they got eaten off by an orca, but there's really no reason to make that jump, and that is also to the film's benefit - and in a fit of isolated depression, she decides to call up Ali just to have a chat, and they end up becoming friends, before becoming fuckbuddies, before becoming a bit more. And now that the legless woman has gotten a new lease on life, it's down to Ali, stunted emotionally and unable to deal with responsibility, to figure his shit out and be a good dad and make a living - which he does as a professional kickboxer, because this is a character study, not a morality play - though given how thoroughly he's managed to alienate everybody and succeeds in alienating Stéphanie, his personal growth is a bit more difficult and harsh than your typical Hollywood soap opera.

Plainly, Schoenaerts and Cotillard are the film's best weapons, not even very secret ones: if it is to work on any level, the main characters need to be performed at the same level of flinty reserve as the direction (but not the script, co-written by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, which indulges in quite a bit of overworked scenes that the directing and acting need to overcome). And they are, very much so: Schoenaerts in particular is a revelation, saturated with a self-pitying dumb masculinity employed as a defense mechanism, and boasting an immensely mutable, soulful face like a Belgian Tom Hardy. It's a fairly complex role that the actor plays perfectly, and it's next to impossible to imagine any version of Rust and Bone working at all without his exact take on Ali: not asking for nor accepting our sympathy, thuggishly pushing the audience away just like all of the other characters, but still being more like a sad boy than a misanthropic adult.

And if Cotillard simply doesn't get as much to do - she is largely ushered out of the movie except as a prop for the last third - she takes full advantage of the scenes the movie gives her, giving the best performance of her career since she started hitting it big in Hollywood pictures (she was filming Rust and Bone in tandem with The Dark Knight Rises, and it's quite impossible to square her messy non-performance there with the steely, precise work she turns in here). There's a scene around the film's midpoint where she, accompanied by Audiard and Stéphane Fontaine's welcoming camera, indulges in a bit of physical acting so remarkably well-judged that it manages to make Katy Perry's clamorous "Firework" genuinely heartbreaking. If that's not great filmmaking, then I never.

This all comes back to the question of, "is that all?" and for all that Rust and Bone is a marvelous acting showcase and a tightly-managed film that explores the instinct to survive and fight with intelligence, it never manages to rise above that. Frankly, it seems like it's doing a lot of outstanding work simply in order not to sink into ludicrous sentimentality, rather than doing outstanding work to be an outstanding movie. It lacks the electricity of A Prophet, to say the least: but still and all, it is a nervy, potent bit of cinema. Sometimes that's all a movie wants to be, and in this case, it's quite enough.