Marion Cotillard as Stéphanie
Matthias Schoenaerts as Alain van Versch
Armand Verdure as Sam
Céline Sallette as Louise
Corinne Masiero as Anna
Bouli Lanners as Martial
Jean-Michel Correia as Richard
Mourad Frarema as Foued
Yannick Choirat as Simon
Océane Cartia as La baby-sitter
Directed by Jacques Audiard
French filmmaker Jacques Audiard has always proven himself to be a bit of anomaly among his countrymates, similar to Olivier Assayas, and after becoming more familiar to American audiences with "A Prophet," he's reunited with that film's screenwriter and producer Thomas Bidegain for a very different film that harks back to his earlier films like "Read My Lips," another character-driven drama about two very different people meeting.
We first meet Ali, played by "Bullhead" star Matthias Schoenarts, as he's riding in a train with a young boy, clearly his son, traveling to a beachside town to move in with his sister Anna until he gets a job. At first you'd think that the entire movie is going to be about Ali and his son Sam, though it acts as a framing device to bring him together with the feisty Stéphanie (Cotillard) who he first encounters at a club where he's working as a bouncer. She works as a trainer of killer whales at Marineland, an odd job indeed, but a grisly accident leaves her without legs and that's where things pick up between them months later as she reaches out to Ali. It's never quite clear why she would call him or why he would respond, but the odd pairing works in a strange way, as he helps her reconnect with the water by taking her to the beach.
This isn't the conventional romantic drama we might see from Nicholas Sparks though, because there are so many different elements in play at any given time and things rarely go where you might expect. Audiard has proven himself to be a special kind of filmmaker, one able to blend divergent elements into a cohesive story that reveals itself slowly over time. Like his previous films, it's not so much about telling a story where a lot of stuff happens, as much as it is about putting interesting characters together in unfamiliar situations to see how react to one another. Just as you've settled into any sort of pattern, Audiard throws a spanner in the works, something he's capable of doing because he's balanced all the disparate elements so well.
There's only so many great things we can say about Marion Cotillard's performance because here you have one of the best actresses on the planet working with a director able to pull amazing performances even from fairly inexperienced actors, as he did in "A Prophet." She has real stakes this time as a woman trying to recover from a horrifying loss, and she brings her A-game to every scene, particularly effect when Stéphanie returns to Marineland to revisit her past, one of the more moving sections of the film. There's also an intriguing "how did they do that?" factor to Cotillard's performance since most of the time we see her without legs, often naked or partially clothed, and it shows great skill to be able to pull off such a brilliant and seamless combination of performance and FX.
Schoenarts' Ali is quite a counterpoint to Cotillard, a simple primal creature all about fighting and f*cking, and it's interesting to see him interacting with a far more complex woman like Stéphanie. We can tell she's tough from their first encounter and while losing her legs takes some of the wind out of her sails, she fights back and starts rooting for Ali during the underground fights he takes on for extra money.
As much as the film is driven by the performances, Audiard has a knack for shooting things in an unconventional manner that brings out the beauty in every frame, not just the film's beach setting but also some of the more mundane moments. These are combined with Alexandre Desplat's subtle scoring as well as some interesting musical choices like high-energy dance music. The fact Audiard is able to use Katy Perry's "Fireworks" during one of the film's more emotional moments is quite a testament to his skills at juxtaposition.
The sad fact is that if Hollywood was to make a movie using the same premise and characters, it would probably be a loopy romantic comedy playing up the humor in the awkwardness of this relationship. Thankfully, Audiard continues to strive to make films so distinctively singular in their originality, no one in Hollywood would even consider remaking this. Regardless, no actress would ever dare try to take on such a difficult role as Stéphanie now that she's already been played to such perfection by Cotillard.