Based upon Rust and Bones, a collection of stories by Craig Davidson, De rouille et d’os is a character led drama which, while attempting to aim at a more commercial audience, at times feels a little forced in instigation. The film deals with the development of a relationship between two people who are coming to terms with significant changes in their lives, but there is somehow a sense that its publicity, depicting a character interacting with an orca whale, seems to be selling the film as environmentally themed rather than the human drama it actually is. So, whilst intrinsic to initial plot development, the poster-mammal for the film is actually a MacGuffin whale. The whale aspect is essential as it is the catalyst for the life-changing events but this denies the film its central premise as an unconventional romantic drama.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) has travelled across France with his young son and needs to stay with his sister for a while. He encounters Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) at a nightclub where has found work as a bouncer and takes her home after a brawl. Whale trainer Stéphanie’s life is about to change completely when she is injured by an orca in an horrific accident at the marine park she works at. She awakes to find that both legs have been amputated below the knee. Unable to deal with her situation initially, she turns to Ali who, as a relative stranger, doesn’t pity her. Slowly they begin to form a friendship, initially just for the sex, but eventually they might be able to find a deeper companionship and maybe even love.

It is the attitudes of the protagonists and the way that their relationship develops that forms the basis for this film. He is a drifter who shirks his responsibilities and she is stubborn as hell. Their feelings and emotions are of primary importance when their lives begin to integrate. In many ways this recalls elements of Audiard’s Un prophète (A Prophet [2009]) in that the central premise is not ultimately what makes the film so engaging to the viewer. Instead it is the integration of the characterisation for the central protagonists whose life stories have become incredibly complex. They are both forced into situations they do not know how to deal with. De rouille et d’os forces its characters to develop – there can be no simple resolutions as Stéphanie cannot cease to be an amputee even if she briefly does re-engage with her former job, any more than Ali is capable of taking on his responsibilities and interacting properly with his son, who is effectively a stranger to him. Instead, like the screenplay and film, they take the positive aspects of their situation and slowly move forward. Stéphanie needs to feel that she is desired, attractive and capable of intercourse, and not just perceived by those around her as having a disability. Ali needs to realise what is important in his life; initially he gets his kicks from professional fighting (an activity that Stéphanie can learn to participate in as his manager) but he too needs to experience a potentially life-changing event in order to get his act together and move forward.

A romantic drama mixed with honest attitudes about accepting disability, De rouille et d’os mixes a high concept story with the sort of in-depth characterisation that made Audiard’s Un prophète and De battre mon cœur s’est arête(The Beat That My Heart Skipped [2005]) so enthralling. Lives progressing after troublesome beginnings.