Stop me if you've seen this before: A woman suffers a devastating injury, struggles with subsequent depression and mopes in misery until a hunky new love teaches her to live again.
If you're avoiding Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone precisely because the outline of its plot sounds familiar, don't. The director of A Prophet and the underrated James Toback reworking The Beat That My Heart Skipped knows how to apply a pulpy sensibility that wards off maudlin, movie-of-the-week sleeve tugging. What could have been a triumph-over-adversity weepie instead becomes a raw, bluntly erotic character study of two damaged people: a broke single dad turned underground boxer (Matthias Schoenaerts, in a star-making role) and a killer-whale trainer (Marion Cotillard) left a double amputee after a Marineland calamity.
Starting with those adventuresome occupations, Audiard stages the material for punchy physicality, even when the plot (adapted from some Craig Davidson short stories) isn't focused on fistfights or casually life-affirming rough sex. Flesh in motion and collision make up the movie's motif, and the first of the Rust and Bone's refreshing surprises is that the digitally de-feeted Cotillard (marvelous in a much livelier star vehicle than the Edith Piaf biopic that won her an Oscar) stops wallowing in record time, warming to the hulking Schoenaerts' suggestion that she use him for booty calls. The movie doesn't escape sentimental pitfalls entirely — an 11th-hour family crisis is plot machinery that was already creaky when Warner Bros. cranked it in the 1930s. But the dynamic lead performances make Rust and Bone as smarm-resistant as the substances in its title.