Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” seems to wander unexpectedly into its heart; it feels organic in its casual unfolding, like life itself. Ali (Matthias Schoenearts) is a drifter, looking for a life for himself and his 5-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), whom he barely knows. The two find their way to Antibes, and to the modest apartment of Ali’s sister (Corinne Masiero), where Ali finds a job as a nightclub bouncer and meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), a cool beauty with a quietly contemptuous gaze. And then — just like that, something terrible happens to Stephanie, and the gritty “Rust and Bone” becomes, beyond anyone’s expectation, a love story.

Audiard (“A Prophet,” “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”) captures his characters in harsh white sunlight, the colors of the landscape baked-in and faded. This movie doesn’t look like a romance, and it doesn’t behave like one either — it resists, at every turn, becoming something pretty. Ali, who fights in illegal bouts for money and neglects his son, isn’t remotely heroic; Stephanie, a whale trainer at a marine park, has a fierce independence. But somehow, they understand each other, and a relationship that’s physical becomes something more; gradually, each makes the other whole again.

“Rust and Bone” (the title refers to the taste of blood in the mouth) is filled with images of water as a life-giving and life-taking force: an opening sequence in which we see seawater and the flecks of life within it; the marine park where the delicate dance between whale and human goes, just for a moment, horribly wrong; the sparkle of a beach where Stephanie finds solace in swimming again; a frozen lake whose ice, like some people, isn’t as solid as it looks; a glass wall behind which swims a whale, in majestic silence. (In the latter scene, Stephanie finds an uncanny connection with the animal; they seem to be speaking to each other, in the quiet.)

It’s a movie that reminds us that not everything broken can be fully mended — and that Cotillard, who unforgettably makes Stephanie at once steely and fragile, is one of the most mesmerizing actresses currently on screen. “I love you,” says this fighter of a woman, late in the film; it’s unexpected and vivid, as if she’s suddenly broken through the surface of rough water to find, to her surprise, sunshine.

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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com