Marion Cotillard in Cannes film 'Rust and Bone'

Jacques Audiard's new movie features poverty, bare-knuckle fighting and a killer whale attack. The French director says it's a sunny romance.

"Rust and Bone" — a strange and surprising love story starring Academy Award-winning French actress Marion Cotillard ("La Vie En Rose") and Belgium's Matthias Schoenaerts, ("Bullhead") — is one of the most hotly anticipated entries at the Cannes Film Festival, but sharply divided its first audience of journalists on Thursday. "Pretty terrible," tweeted Time Out critic Dave Calhoun. "Enthralling and moving," said The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw.

Audiard won the festival's second prize in 2009 with taut prison drama "A Prophet." He said "Rust and Bone" was his attempt to do something completely different.

"('A Prophet') was very male. It took place in prison, the area was very confined and there were no women," Audiard told reporters. "We wanted to portray a love story full of light and space, and this is what happened."

"Rust and Bone" is not a total departure for the director. Like "A Prophet," it centers on characters battling to rise above dire circumstances. Schoenaerts' Ali is a brawny, inarticulate single father struggling to support himself and his 5-year-old son. Cotillard plays Stephanie, a killer whale trainer at Marineland who suffers a devastating accident at work. The two form an unlikely alliance that is tested by events and by their own characters.

Like "A Prophet," the movie has moments both depressing and uplifting, as well as a potential for melodrama that is undercut by a matter-of-fact delivery.

The script by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, loosely adapted from stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, is set on the French Riviera just a few miles from Cannes — though its scrappy working-class world is a far cry from the festival's glitz.

For Cotillard, the film marks a return to European movies after high-profile Hollywood outings like "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises."

Both lead actors are asked to bare all — physically and emotionally — and to take their characters on journeys whose twists may test the patience of some viewers.

Cotillard admitted to being apprehensive about the role of a troubled and enigmatic woman who must rebuild her life after losing her legs.

"On the whole when I read a script ... I immediately understand the character," she told journalists at the festival Thursday. "With Stephanie I reached the end of the script and I still didn't know who she was.

"I said to Jacques, I'm a bit scared, I don't know how this is going to work. And he said, 'I don't know either.'"

Schoenaerts admitted to being intimidated by his co-star, whom he called "an exceptional actress."

"I thought, there's Jacques, there's Marion, I'm never going to manage," Schoenaerts said. "I'll be useless."

In fact he makes a strong impression as the alternately easygoing and angry Ali. Cotillard compared her co-star's intensity to that of Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Belgian actor's combination of muscular physique and charm — combined with his turn in the Oscar-nominated cattle-crime drama "Bullhead" — have led some to predict Hollywood will adopt him as its next European action star.

"It's funny you say so, because last week they called me for 'Rambo 34,'" Schoenaerts joked — before admitting there has been interest from the United States.

"There's a lot of stuff moving and I'm excited," he said. "But I'm not in a rush."


Jill Lawless can be reached at