Rather than film a series of vignettes and tie them together thematically, Audiard has forced them into a single narrative, transposing two of the characters into each scenario and relying on their connection to propel everything forward.
Said characters are Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), an unemployed father hitchhiking to France with his five-year-old son, and Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at Marineland that loses both of her legs in a work-related accident shortly after meeting Alain.
Having met in a rescue scenario — with Alain stepping in during a physical assault at a club where he bounces — she turns to him while grieving post-amputation, presumably for his candour (he casually tells her she dresses like a whore when they first meet) and gruff, heroic introduction.
But while their relationship proves formulaic, taking the expected path of mutual growth and acceptance, Audiard isn't entirely interested in the familiar, glib tropes of overcoming obstacles. These characters — both acutely realized by Cotillard and Schoenaerts — are deeply damaged, managing only to stay afloat with each other's aid as life throws an endless series of curveballs at them.
Even their relationship isn't depicted as particularly wholesome, since Stephanie spends most of the film training Alain like she does her whales, rewarding him for good behaviour while calmly modifying his more uncouth animal instincts. This theme is made literal when she becomes his fight manager after he gets involved with an illegal, underground, ersatz-gladiator ring.
It's through her eyes and maternal, albeit self-destructive compassion that we're able to tolerate his stoic, unrefined character, whose impatience with his son borders on abusive.
Similarly, beyond the intense portrayal of these deeply flawed characters by the actors, Audiard's poetic, pseudo-impressionist vision of the story keeps things flowing emotionally, fading out of intense emotional sequences with dulled sound that slowly emerges into the next moment, giving the audience time to process and reflect.
Some contrivances, such as Alain's ability to overcome a larger opponent in a fight when Stephanie steps into his line of sight, hinder the overall dignity of this deeply human story, but there's a slow burning intensity that lingers long after the final frame, generating intended reflection. (Mongrel Media)