At once sombre and exhilarating, Jacques Audiard's new film is a kind of anti-romantic love story that remains quite aloof from the sentimental excesses its plotline might have encouraged us to expect.
Audiard, whose most recent work - the morally complex thrillers The Beat My Heart Skipped and the Oscar-nominated A Prophet - showcased a distinctive voice, here shows his command of emotional complexity as well. His characters are as far as might be imagined from the Hollywood rom-com standards: their defiant ordinariness put me in mind of the street-level folks who inhabit the films of film-maker Robert Guediguian (although their goodness is buried beneath more wounded exteriors), and the vibrant performances bring them ringingly to life.
Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) is magnificent as Stephanie, a haughty trainer of killer whales at a fun park in a rich resort town on the French Riviera. It is scarcely a spoiler to say that a shocking accident in the second reel leaves her with no legs. And what's even more surprising is the source of her solace in the bleakness that follows.
That would be Ali (Schoenaerts), who has just hit town with a young son and a sad back-story. He's living with his sister and working as a bouncer, while trying to make it as a kickboxer in wagered backstreet brawls.
Their initial meeting has a certain frisson about it, but the symbiotic relationship that later develops between this unlikely pair is something to behold: she, initially repelled by his ambition, becomes his collaborator in the new enterprise; he takes a more circuitous route to surrender.
It sounds like the stuff of a soap opera, albeit an offbeat one, and Audiard, a great admirer of American genre pictures, is not afraid of the melodramatic. But in sequences such as the one in which Stephanie revisits the scene of her tragedy, he conjures sublime, even transcendent moments, and dresses it in soundtrack choices - Lykke Li, Bon Iver, Katy Perry - that are audacious and inspired.
This is, by any standards, a remarkable achievement, an arresting and stylish film that reinvests one of storytelling's oldest ideas - the power of love to tame the wildest heart - with bold new life. It is one of the most original movies you're likely to see this year.
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts
Director: Jacques Audiard
Running time: 118 mins
Rating: R16 (graphic violence, sex scenes and offensive language). In French with English subtitles
Verdict: Superb anti-romantic drama