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Within hours of its premiere last week at the Cannes Film Festival, Rust and Bone was hailed by some as this year's version of The Artist — i.e., a French import with the potential to ride a wave of Cannes kudos to a big crossover, American mainstream audience. Like The Artist, Rust and Bone is a romance made primarily by French people, and it seems like a lock for the festival's acting awards. Recognition by the Academy might be harder to come by: Pedigreed though it may be, it's also a relatively violent crime film with spats of CGI-enabled, double amputee–on–bare-knuckle-boxer sex.

Oscar winner Marion Cotillard plays the fetching legless woman; Matthias Schoenaerts (the star stud of 2011 Oscar nominee Bullhead) is the morally ambiguous boxer/thug/single dad with whom Cotillard's Stephanie falls in something like love. It's director Jacques Audiard's follow-up to A Prophet, which premiered at Cannes in 2009 and went on to be nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar the following year.

Audiard has emerged as an international cinema titan over the past decade or so, received as a high artist for playing within the essentially lowbrow genre of the urban crime film, including A Prophet and his 2005 remake of James Toback's Fingers, The Beat That My Heart Skipped. What sets an Audiard film apart from, say, your average Jason Statham flick (a brand of high-low art that doesn't generally premiere at Cannes)? Let's be reductive and say it's some combination of an awareness of intractable class stratification and racial tension in contemporary France; moody, melodramatic aesthetics, often propelled by impeccably chosen pop cues; and action that takes a backseat to character study, with not-quite-stars cast as enigmatic antiheroes who do bad things but are coded sympathetically, as if they're the rare sensitive souls who manage to do what it takes to thrive within inherently fucked-up social systems.

What I've often found alternately fascinating and troubling about Audiard's films is the manipulation involved in this coding, the often stylish cinematic alchemy that gets a viewer to believe in a character's heroism, even as the film offers ample visual evidence that he's actually a villain. Rust and Bone is an incredibly manipulative, surface-oriented, impressionistic film, but it's also plainly about surfaces — the ways in which impressions can be both misleading and not without truth, as manifested within a slow-building, mutually manipulative relationship between two people who derive a kind of high from the power their bodies have on others.

Ali (Schoenaerts), a well-built amateur boxer, rescues his 5-year-old son from his drug-dealing mom, and the two move in with Ali's sister in Antibes. Ali gets a job as a security guard at a nightclub, where he breaks up a tussle and ends up giving a ride home to Stephanie (Cotillard) — a posh-looking knockout who came to the club alone and, for reasons not quite clear, leaves with a bloody nose.

The next day, Stephanie, captain of a killer whale show at a Sea World–style marine park, is injured in a horrible accident at work; she wakes up with both her legs having been cut off at the knee. Depressed and physically helpless, she calls Ali — who has proven to be nothing if not physically capable — and the two develop an initially chaste friendship, which changes one day when Ali asks, “You want to fuck?” She answers in the affirmative, and the power dynamic between the pair becomes murkier.

Blunt and brutish with his words and fists, Ali is deceptively withholding of emotion, his initial heroics (protecting his son by any means necessary, jumping at Stephanie's call) contrasted by later scenes in which he treats people who love him carelessly, or worse. He generally behaves as if he can't imagine a future beyond the moment, inducing variants of “What were you thinking?” from those he obliviously hurts. It's a tribute to Schoenaerts' beautifully restrained performance (in contrast to Cotillard's equally impressive but utterly transparent turn) that we never know the answer to that question, his specific motivations and thought processes remaining completely opaque. At times you wonder if there's any there there at all — here's a guy who gets pretty far in various spheres of life on the power of his body alone, but morally, emotionally and mentally, he seems to barely exist.

And then, there's a final, climactic tragedy — which, like the one that cripples Stephanie, takes place underwater — followed by what appears to be a cloyingly sentimental, redemptive happy ending.

But given the film's repeated emphasis on the deceptive nature of perception and expectations — made explicit at key dramatic moments through dialogue — can we take this ending at face value? And if the conclusion is ironic, it stands to reason that everything that came before it could have an equally acid-edged extra meaning.

Without spoiling anything, I think it's worth noting that the film's final, happy-ending montage includes images of Ali having his picture taken — literally putting on a pose, and an act. Has he changed at all, as the film's final turn of events would have the characters within the drama believe, or is he still fronting, just an empty vessel posing as the epitome of masculine strength and capability?

If Audiard's mastery of plastic aesthetics (including an emphasis on abstractions of light and shadow, particularly in the two water-disaster sequences; and the not-patently-ironic use of a Katy Perry single — twice) makes this all go down a little too easily, that's only fitting for a film dedicated to the lesson that perceptions can be deceiving.

Rust and Bone opens later this year.