We've seen the "bravely facing disability" actor's showpiece film before. And we've seen the character-driven, slice-of-life drama with a French vagabond who is a jerk but still sympathetic. But have we seen them together? No! And that's why 'Rust & Bone,' the latest from director Jacques Audiard ('Un Prophete,' 'The Beat That My Heart Skipped,') is bound to end up a word-of-mouth favorite.

It is, indeed, a juicy film but I think that if you scratch past the surface you'll find that, really, it's just pure soap opera that doesn't add up to that much.

We begin with Ali (played by Matthias Shoenaerts from 'Bullhead') and his moppety blonde son on a train. They scrounge leftover chip bags and soda cans for food, then arrive at the southern coast and the refuge of Ali's sister. You can tell there's some bad blood, but this is a forgiving, proletarian home. The husband, a truck driver, needs sleep during the day and she takes expired food from her supermarket job each night. A quick line of dialogue explains that the boy's mom is in jail, and that Dad hasn't been too involved in the childrearing. (He doesn't know if the kid goes to school.)

Ali soon gets a job as a bouncer and on his very first night there's a ruckus that sends Marion Cotillard flat on her butt. Ali ends up driving her home. While she's dressed provocatively, and was presumably out flirting, we learn that she's got a boyfriend. Through very quick glimpses we see it isn't an ideal relationship. We also learn that Cotillard isn't some floozy - she's actually (get this) a whale trainer that works at a Sea World-ish park.

If that wasn't peculiar enough, we follow her to work and witness (and I swear I'm not making this up) a WHALE ACCIDENT.

Yes, during a choreographed dance to Katy Perry's "Firework," a whale flops the wrong way, smashes the stage and sends the lovely Cotillard into the water. Cut to a scene later when she wakes up dazed, drugged and (gasp!) missing her legs.

Cotillard plays the moment well (though no one can ever touch Mary McDonnell's version of this scene from John Sayles' 'Passion Fish,') but, call me a stooge, all I kept thinking was "a whale? a WHALE?"

"Rust and Bone" continues as Cotillard makes a slow march to acceptance. During her sullen stage, she reaches out to Ali. The implication is that her boyfriend left and she doesn't want to face her "real" friends. They go to the beach and his nonchalance around her disfigurement (or maybe it's just low-class bluntness - it is intentionally vague) leads to some pallin' around. He gives her piggy-back rides between security gigs, shacking up with other women and ignoring his son.

In time, their relationship turns physical, but is a way that is more French than usual. Ali doesn't feel the need to hide his chauvinistic side because, at first, he does not consider her a viable romance. In his mind, at least at first, he's doing charity work - which is odd, because she's still Marion Cotillard.

It's hard to get a read on what Cotillard's character thinks of Ali. My interpretation is that she is, basically, using him at first, then grows excited by him. He engages in vicious bare knuckle fights, and not just to make money. He gets off on the brutality and this excites her. Here's when 'Rust and Bone' presents a unique movie-going conundrum: can you like a movie where you don't really like the main characters?

Ali isn't just flawed, he's immoral and smacks around his kid. His poor parenting leads to a disaster set piece that, instead of spoiling it, I'll just say it's as hackneyed as a boy getting caught down in a well.

There are more than a few moments in 'Rust and Bone' that are truly touching. Cotillard getting fitted for her prosthetic legs is strangely terrifying, and one sequence of intense acrotomophilic sex intercut with badass brawling (in leather jackets) to Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper" is, to say the least, unique. It just seems to be crammed in from a completely different movie (more like Oliver Stone's 'Savages') than a film about working class families and struggling with disabilities.

Cotillard is gorgeous and she gives her all in this film. She'll get nominated for all the awards and deservedly so. In the abstract I applaud the film for not following the usual play book for a drama of this sort. But, I dunno, some of the ham-fisted sequences with their musical choices are just too much to take seriously. If it were Olivier Assayas or Wong Kar-Wei putting this together, there'd be a daring layer of meta-earnestness that I could accept. As presented here, it's meant to be taken on the level, and that's where I part company.

‘Rust and Bone' opens in select theaters on November 23.

Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.