Director Jacques Audiard describes Rust and Bone, his widely acclaimed follow-up to A Prophet, as a “gritty melodrama”. I wonder whether something got lost in translation. On paper, there is plenty here that would excite the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro González Iñárritu – bloody street fights, graphic sex scenes and a beautiful woman maimed by a killer whale. Yet Audiard’s low-key direction and refusal to choose gloss over substance ensure this unflinching drama never strays into soap-opera territory.

Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) travels from Belgium to Antibes with his five-year-old son Sam (the appealing Armand Verdure) to stay with his sister. Anna (Corinne Masiero) takes an interest in her vulnerable nephew, though that hardly makes up for Ali’s erratic parenting skills. A former boxer and kickboxer, the burly single dad veers between neglect (regularly forgetting to pick Sam up from school) and physical cruelty (shaking the terrified child when he’s disobedient). He’s well qualified for his new job as a nightclub bouncer, where he comes to the aid of Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard). She’s just been hit in the face during a brawl, and Ali stuns her with another clumsy (verbal) blow: “You’re dressed like a whore.”  It’s hardly an auspicious start.

Tellingly, our first glimpse of Steph is her bare legs sprawled on the nightclub floor. She loses the bottom half of those limbs following an accident at Marineland, where she revels in her job as a whale trainer. Like the orca pool, disability can be dangerous cinematic territory, but Audiard spares us the full horror of the incident and its aftermath. So Rust and Bone finds beauty – even serenity – as the camera delves beneath the surface to show wreckage, a drifting body and a cloud of blood.

That same narrative restraint extends into Steph’s painful rehabilitation and growing dependence on Ali as a friend, supporter and part-time lover. The scenes in which Steph takes her first post-amputation swim and later removes her artificial legs to have sex with Ali, could have been sentimental, prurient or just plain weird. Audiard pulls them off with minimal dialogue and a reliance on Schoenaerts and Cotillard to find the emotional truth without embarrassment.

Though it doesn’t start out as a cerebral or deeply romantic relationship, Ali and Steph seem to understand that each needs their physical outlet in order to survive. Her self-image has been constructed around her need to be watched – both by her lovers and in the performance of her job.  As she embraces one of her beloved orcas from the “safe” side of the tank, you can almost see the internal healing process. Similarly, Ali rejoices in the pain as well as the payouts that go with his masochistic sideline in street fighting.

Shorn of its usual cinematic glamour, the Côte d’Azur is shown here as just another recession-hit backwater – albeit with better beaches. Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine have a fondness for point of view shots, huge close-ups and camera angles that are sometimes perverse. So Ali’s first glimpse of the coastline at Antibes isn’t a breath-taking vision of blue ocean but a quick skim across the horizon from just over his right shoulder. A little later, he wakes from nap on the beach and the foreground of the frame is entirely filled by Steph’s giant nipples. Subtle it isn’t. But there are beautiful images here too, including the symphony of glossy black skin and foam as the whales go through the diving routine that precedes the accident.

Ali’s involvement in illegal surveillance seems like an unnecessary subplot here, put in purely to engineer a massive bust-up with his sister. They could have just fallen out over his treatment of Sam. But this is a minor fault in a film that knows exactly where it’s going from the moment Ali and Steph first meet, yet still keeps you wondering whether it will deliver the big emotional pay-off.

Marion Cotillard already has an Oscar for the baffling and convoluted La Vie en Rose, but I found her performance here far more impressive and affecting. When Steph loses her legs she is literally cast adrift – professionally and personally – and it’s fascinating to watch Cotillard rebuild this woman from the ground up. As her unlikely saviour, Matthias Schoenaerts gives us a man of many contradictions whose heart finally proves to be as reliable as his fists.

Rust and Bone