Rust and Bone's soundtrack features Bon Iver, "Love Shack" by the B-52s, and Katy Perry's "Firework." Such contrivances are rivaled only by the film's implausible premise: A driven trainer of orcas (Marion Cotillard), who has just lost her legs in a freak accident at a Sea World-like park on the French Riviera, falls in love with a thuggish drifter (Matthias Schoenaerts). It sounds like a romantic melodrama that's been sprinkled with Free Willy dust and set to a college freshman's road-trip playlist. And yet, in this film about beating the odds, both soundtrack and plot manage to do just that.

The romance begins almost conventionally. Schoenaerts' character, Ali, is a nightclub bouncer who breaks up a fight involving Cotillard's Stephanie. He escorts her home and nonchalantly comments that she's dressed like a whore. When he notes the photos of whales at her apartment, she spits back: "You're surprised a whore can train orcas." The relationship doesn't build until later, after Stephanie's catastrophe and after Ali has moved on to a gig as a security guard (which he supplements with petty crime and street fighting). Writer-director Jacques Audiard doesn't really explain what impels Stephanie to phone Ali after losing her legs, but by this point, we don't care. We've seen each character broken—Stephanie physically and Ali spiritually—and their union feels hard-won.

Cotillard turns in a phenomenal, intoxicating performance. With eyes that simultaneously exude warmth and steeliness, she conveys Stephanie's anguish, shame and eventual embrace of pleasure with raw energy and vulnerability. How sympathetic you find Ali may depend on your predilection for bare-knuckled brawling, which Audiard depicts with gritty naturalism. Schoenaerts can't compare to Cotillard, but he's a believably jagged father and lover.

Rust and Bone recalls The Sessions, another recent picture about sex and disability. In that film, a severely disabled man employs a sex surrogate to lose his virginity. Likewise, Stephanie and Ali's sexual relationship grows not out of lust or emotional compatibility: Stephanie fears she's no longer operational, and Ali matter-of-factly offers his services. In both films, what begins as an act of physical therapy for a single character becomes hard-fought emotional rehabilitation for both participants. Based on a true story, The Sessions has a leg up on Rust and Bone, but the latter pummels and tenses in ways the former doesn't.

Critic's Grade: B+

SEE IT: Rust and Bone is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.