A love story without romance strikes a deeper chord than you might expect. French filmmaker Jacques Audiard brings just as much brutality to this one as his astounding 2009 prison drama A Prophet, and again teases an extraordinary performance out of his star.
Marion Cotillard doesn't benefit from any soft-focus close-ups as Stephanie, a surly type who might be mistaken for a hardnosed hooker when Audiard introduces her in the gloom of a nightclub. In fact, she trains whales at a marine park in the south of France and her nocturnal exploits seem like an extension of her need to exercise power over hulking beasts.
The club bouncer Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is just her type, muscling in when she gets into trouble one night. He then turns to bare-knuckle fighting for extra cash, ostensibly putting himself at risk to support his young son, but he admits to rather enjoying it too. As well as violence he has a great appetite for sex, taking it where he can find it, before promptly leaving.
For a while she scrabbles around, feeling sorry for herself, but Ali refuses to indulge her. Instead he picks her up and carries her into the ocean where she strips off and begins to feel more like herself again, throwing off shame and fear.
The sight of Cotillard naked, without her lower legs, is provocative, not least for Ali who sneaks a peek while she sunbathes. Soon, their relationship becomes physical, but Ali refuses to get involved emotionally, instead offering his services like a physiotherapist to an anxious patient. She accepts his tactless, brutish ways - that is until he leaves her in a nightclub to take home someone else.
Even among bloody scenes of bare-knuckle fighting, Ali's dismissive behaviour towards Stephanie is gruelling to watch and yet Cotillard gives a deeply powerful performance that does not beg sympathy. She takes the blows and comes back fighting, asserting her position with Ali and forcing him to confront the fact that he too is crippled, albeit emotionally.
Ali's relationship with his son (Arman Verdure) is also punctuated by moments of rapture and rage, and offers him an obvious route to redemption when the boy finds himself in mortal danger. At the same time Audiard lets the film lapse into conventional melodrama at this stage, and the longer Cotillard is absent from the screen, the more frustrating this is.
The flow isn't seamless, instead undulating to the different rhythms set by its two lead players, but it does all come together with a satisfying equilibrium when, finally, both parties meet each other halfway. It is a love story that is altogether raw, animalistic and achingly human.
Photo gallery - BFI London Film Festival 2012 in pictures: