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Jacques Audiard: A romance from a man's man filmmaker

Marion Cotillard in "Rust and Bone"

Though he had then made only five films, in 2010 the British Film Institute bestowed upon him a retrospective, Jacques Audiard and the French Thriller, showing his films alongside others by past masters Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean Renoir and Henri-Georges Clouzot.

No doubt, the 59-year-old filmmaker, with his bald head and relaxed sense of humour, has a gift for creating memorable male characters, likeable liars and con-men, in such films as A Self Made Hero, Read My Lips and The Beat that My Heart Skipped.

For his latest film, Rust and Bone, he has 34-year-old Belgian actor Mattias Schoenaerts, who dominates the screen in his role as Ali, a street fighter, erratic father and sometimes tender lover, who learns, ever so slowly, that he's neither self-sufficient nor invulnerable. But this isn't just a guy movie – it's a romance. Schoenaerts's co-star is Marion Cotillard, the Oscar-winning French actress who has been a go-too French star for Hollywood directors from Michael Mann ( Public Enemies) and Christopher Nolan ( Inception and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises) to Woody Allen ( Midnight in Paris).

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The problem with A Prophet, Audiard said on Thursday to the Cannes press, was that there were "no women. I wanted to do something different, a story full of light and space."

The Rust and Bone script, inspired by Canadian writer Craig Davidson's short-story collection, which Audiard admired. Yet he decided to alter it radically, turning it into a love story by changing the sex of one character, and cherry-picking character qualities and incidents. The script was co-written by Thomas Bidegain, who said that, although many elements were different, he felt the film was true to the "essence" of Davidson's book. The screenplay took two years to complete. It was shot in Antibes, 20 minutes by car from Cannes, mostly because it's the only place in France with a marina with captive killer whales.

"We were in the neighbourhood so it was easy to drop into the Palais for the festival," Audiard joked.

Much of the post-screening buzz was about Schoenaerts's onscreen presence. A big, muscular man with a brooding gaze, he seems destined for Hollywood, at least for a good action-film villain role. Audiard said he had initially been planning to cast a non-professional actor, and had done auditions in boxing clubs, but hadn't found what he wanted until he saw Schoenaerts in the Belgian Oscar-nominated film Bullhead.

"Matthias doesn't really match with my male criteria in any way," the director teased. "I like small men and here's this tall man with big muscles. But that's what the film is about."

Naturally, someone asked if Schoenaerts had attracted Hollywood notice. "It's funny you said so," said Schoenaerts, in very American-sounding English. "They just came calling last week, asking me to do Rambo 34, but I'm holding out for [Rambo]35 and 36 as well." Joking aside, he added: "There's stuff moving in the States, but I've got time."

His co-star Cotillard is typically modest in answer to questions about her own accomplishments ("Recognition comes when people see your films. We make the films for people to see; that's what it's about"). She was considerably more effusive about Schoenaerts. She had not seen his work, and recalls that the first time she met him, she saw "a very big back" and guessed who he was. On the first read-through, she said, she found the "joy of working with a great actor. Like DiCaprio, or Daniel Day-Lewis. He's of that ilk. I think he's a tremendous actor who can play many different parts, and I wish him a stupendous career."

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Schoenaerts's recollection of their first encounter was somewhat different. He remembered Audiard telling him that Cotillard was to be his co-star and immediately feeling nervous. He had already shot scenes with other characters when he met Cotillard three weeks into the shoot: "She was in a wheelchair, acting totally depressed and almost mute. I thought, 'Uh-oh – this really isn't going to work out with Marion.' It wasn't until we started rehearsing that I realized she was totally in Stéphanie's world already. She'd actually become Stéphanie"

In the film, Cotillard's character has her legs amputated, relatively early in the story. The appearance of the character's severed limbs and braces is disturbingly credible, created with computer-generated techniques that Audiard said would not have been possible even 10 years ago.

But the director then offered a more interesting version of the story of what happened to Cotillard's legs. "I cut them off," he explained. "Then they grew back – and very nicely too."

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