Rust and Bone is an arresting drama that retains its poignancy without succumbing to sentimentality. Writer-director Jacques Audiard, well known for his engrossing prison epic A Prophet, trains his eye on the lives of an unemployed father, Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), and a killer whale trainer, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard). Set mainly in the Cote D’Azur city of Antibes, the plot unfurls gradually against the backdrop of their developing relationship.

At its core, Rust and Bone is a film of contrasts. The scenes are lit naturally and typically shot handheld, eschewing wide shots for tighter, more revealing images of the character’s expressions. These cinematographic choices add an extra level of intimacy to the story’s unfolding. Most scenes are dominated by dark, somber interiors that reflect the inner unrest or the sun-drenched Mediterranean beach that breathes hope for renewal. The soundtrack—ranging from Bon Iver to Katy Perry—would have been jarring under normal circumstances. However, the exuberant pop and melancholic folk’s incoherence coalesces appropriately with the mixture of emotions conjured up by the story.

The film’s remarkable quality rests on this tight balance of pathos that Audiard deftly crafts. His direction propels the film and keeps it from falling prey to a thin narrative that lacks focus towards its conclusion. Schoenaerts and Cotillard shine in their respective roles and pay back the viewer’s two hours on the merit of their performances alone. With their relationship catalyzed by tragedy, the brawny Ali is juxtaposed with the incapacitated Stephanie, their apparent disparities creating an unexpected but strong connection between the two. The pair elicits emotion without sensationalizing their desperate and often overwhelming situations. Organically developing during the course of the film, Schoenaerts keeps up a stolid aura that is eventually shattered, sending the audience into a chaotic tumult—albeit slightly too late to lend heft to the plot. Not to be shown up, Cotillard’s acting is mesmerizing. She preserves her elegance and dramatic power in a role which normally evokes a sense of pity that would mitigate the intensity of her character.

In their natural, restrained dispositions, the protagonists and supporting cast relay the tribulations of poverty and disability in modern France with gravitas. The film’s full force is hindered by an underdeveloped screenplay, but Audiard’s latest effort is a visual delight and an experience that transcends its underdeveloped screenplay. Rust and Bone portrays parental and romantic relationships with an unflinching directorial hand and Oscar-caliber performances that hit the audience hard.