CANNES - We all pick up scars as we move through life, some visible, others not, and it is how we deal with these physical and emotional traumas that defines who we are.

Jacques Audiard has been steadily putting out small films of enormous power for the past decade or so, and I first tuned into his work with "Read My Lips" in 2001.  "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" came next, and for many people, "A Prophet" was the moment they realized just how strong a clear a voice he has as a filmmaker.  Because of that film's international success, there was much expectation focused on the 8:30 AM screening of his new film today at Cannes, and based on the trailer I'd seen for it, I walked in expecting one film.  Instead, I got something much richer, more prickly, and more deeply felt than I expected, and I am once again convinced that Audiard is a major voice, an artist of note, and a gifted humanist filmmaker.

Based loosely on a collection of short stories by Craig Davidson and scripted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, the film tells the story of Ali, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a guy who has sort of drifted through life until the moment he finds himself homeless and in charge of his five-year-old son.  He takes the boy, Sam (Armand Verdure), to live with his sister Anna (Corinne Masiero) while he tries to find gainful employment.  He gets a short-lived gig as a bouncer, which is how he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) one night, when she's assaulted by a guy at the club.  Ali drives her home and leaves his number in case she wants to get in touch, but at first, they seem to live in such different worlds that it seems unlikely she would ever call him.  She's a whale trainer for a French marine park, gorgeous and vibrant, and then everything changes for her when there's an accident that leaves her without her legs from the knee down.

What I expected from seeing the basic set-up in the trailer was a film about a relationship that develops during her recovery, and that's certainly some of what happens in the film, but it's not the point.  There's much more going on, and Ali is the center of the film, not Stephanie.  Cotillard's work here is incredible, nuanced and real, and the film dodges easy sentiment at every turn.  Instead of playing Stephanie as a victim in need of healing, the film treats her the same way Ali does, as a person who was knocked down but who has the strength to stand up again on her own.  She's no victim, and Ali's not some perfect angel who has all the answers for how to fix her.

Schoenaerts was so good in "Bullhead" that it almost felt like the kind of role you only find once, and I wondered what else he is capable of.  He is huge, a slab of inarticulate beef, but he communicates volumes of soul with gestures, with his sunken eyes staring out past his smashed features.  He deals with the world on a purely physical basis because that's all he knows, and watching Ali struggle to do right by the people in his life while grappling with his own animal nature became quite moving.  There is tenderness in him, and he's able to express it in small bursts, but there is also bottomless anger and need, and he finds himself overwhelmed by it at times.

On a purely technical level, the film pulls off quite the magic trick with Cotillard and her legs, and I eventually had to stop thinking about how they accomplished certain shots or scenes because it is seamless.  Her recovery is charted with such a sure hand, such a lack of obvious manipulation, and Cotillard is so good with the physical details of how she adapts to her new life and, eventually, her new legs, that it almost seems documentary.  The film just doesn't want to wallow in the misery of the situation.  Audiard refuses to make it that easy.

That's not to say there is no emotion to the film, just that it avoids all the obvious moves.  There is enormous emotion here, and there is a sequence late in the film that reduced me to a sobbing mess, blindsiding me and landing right where I live, right at the heart of my own fears and insecurities.  His surprising choices even extend to his soundtrack.  For example, I never expected to hear Katy Perry's "Fireworks" used in a context that would affect me the way it does here.  It is a lovely piece of work all around, and if this does not end up near the very top of my list of films I see at this festival, then it will be a truly epic festival.  Audiard deserves to once again be applauded for the way he takes melodramatic convention and bends it to his own particular sensibility, delivering a powerful tale about the reminders we all carry of the pains that have formed us.

"Rust and Bone" will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in the US later this year.