Jacques Audiard's new film Rust and Bone starts with urgent energy, conveyed with the sound of brisk footsteps, as a man moves down a sidewalk in southern France. More rushed sounds follow: the same man on a train with his son as both rip into their lunch with gusto. No words. This hunking character stands for vitality.

"No, I don't smoke," he says later in a job interview." I do sports. Some kickboxing." He gets the job: to be a bouncer in a wild nightclub, and there he meets the pretty woman who will be the other major character of the movie. He breaks up a fight, exquisitely filmed with punches and blood, and drives her home, staring at her pretty legs.

The next scene: a killer whale flips through the air, then slaps the water, with a loud resonant sound, it is the key note of Audiard's film: it is the slap that, metaphorically, wakes the baby up, that creates breath and life.

But then that killer whale breaks out of its cage...

Not to give away the plot too much, but Rust and Bone, based on a short story by the American Craig Davidson, becomes the quirky friendship with the nearly inarticulate hunking bouncer and the maimed victim of the killer whale: the woman with the pretty legs.

"You need some sex?" the thuggish bouncer says practically to this pretty woman, devastated by her accident. "If you do, I'll just let you know if I am OP, and then it's done."

"OP?" she says.

"OP." he shrugs."Operational." For him, sentiments have nothing to do with sex. Nor do they have much to do with fatherhood. He often forgets his little son at school, while having sex with some girl here and there.

The guy is a Neanderthal brute. But he does live the life of the body exhuberantly. Like Audiard's shots, both he and the woman are testimony to physical vitality. "We both do things for fun," the man notes. Or so the girl used to.

In an earlier interview I had with Jacques Audiard, we had had a long discussion about his dislike for "ethics" in art. "The Prophet is about amorality, not morality," he had said with his quick energetic flair, waving his hands and speaking fast. "I keep away from black and white moralizing."

Clearly he was pulling my leg. His new movie is extremely ethical, if not moralistic. It is the story of a man and a woman waking up to being human -- and what it takes to shock someone from self-absorption and the physical amoral world, to become caring and connected to other human beings, a story of dawning consciousness reminiscent of that typical of the Dardenne brothers' films.

The story is -- like all of Audiard's work -- visually and acoustically gripping. At no point does one not wait with excitement for the next image, the next surprise, or creative artistic choice. We have startling shots of the woman's "feet," a broken bloody tooth and some lively sex as well. The culminating image of the film: the man's hand beating a frozen block of ice, becoming bloody as the sound becomes more dull. Metaphor: he is breaking through (obviously).

However, it is also true that the film is a bit too obvious in its message. While the Dardennes are a master of making a character's ethical evolution come from within, here the moral message seems to be imposed by the director. The worst: when the lead announces his growing ethical thoughts in a phone call, line by line, as if we in the audience could not figure out what he was feeling ourselves. Another source of irritation is the woman's best friend, whose main role in the film is to look sympathetic and wince.

Despite such errors -- and one or two too-sentimental chords of music -- this film is a must-see, and probably up for a prize at Cannes, if only for the beauty of Marion Cotillard's expressive eyes, and the handsome virility of Matthias Schonaerts. It is an enlivening experience -- you feel woken up as well.
categories Movies