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“Rust and Bone” is 2012’s most intensely physical love story, an emotionally shattering sensory collision of killer whales, prosthetic limbs, bare-knuckle kick-boxing, and Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

Sounds like a mess, doesn’t it? Have no fear. Jacques Audiard’s French language Cannes entry is a triumph, an intense, jolting experience that verges on the overwrought but never falls overboard.

Marion Cotillard is Stephanie, a killer whale trainer whose life changes following a devastating tragedy, and even though the Oscars foolishly ignored her work, it might be the year’s most complete performance. (What happens to Stephanie is not a secret. Yet not knowing might make the film an even more powerful experience.)

Before the accident, Stephanie meets Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a beefy, ornery brute and single father. His past include a kick-boxing stint, and his dream is to get back in that world; a child is not part of the plan.

Ali and Sam move in with his put-upon sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), a frazzled but caring supermarket employee, and her husband, and Ali gets a job as a bouncer. Here, he assists a sad-eyed woman with a knack for trouble – Stephanie. These wounded souls – both physically and emotionally battered – forge a friendship, an odd one.

Stephanie is still recovering from a life-changing event. Ali does not want to be a father to Sam, leading to several heart-wrenching scenes with young actor Armand Verdure. Watch the boy’s reaction when Ali angrily hoses him down, or after a beloved dog is taken away. Then watch Schoenaerts’ responses. You’ll hate him, but you’ll buy every second of it.

As “Rust and Bone” develops, we see almost every corner of Stephanie and Ali’s lives. We watch as the relationship becomes sexual, as the unthinking Ali both nurtures and hurts, as he begins brutal back-alley kick-boxing for money, as he seems to grow, a little, as a father, and as Stephanie starts to live again.

It is occasionally overwhelming, never more so than during the film’s last 10 minutes, a scene involving Sam that many will call manipulative, but in the context of the film seems grimly logical. It works, for three main reasons: its lead actress and actor, and its director.

Cotillard’s passionate, note-perfect work is no surprise; from her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” to her unhinged support in “Inception,” she has become one of our finest actors — if not the finest.

But unless you’re one of the lucky few to have experienced last year’s Academy Award-nominated foreign film “Bullhead,” this is your introduction to Schoenaerts, and you’re unlikely to forget it. Along with Tom Hardy, Schoenaerts is our most physically emotive performer, an actor who punches, yells and detonates with Brando-like muscle.

It’s overseen by Audiard, the stylist behind the violent French hits “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “A Prophet.” From its uses of music and silence to its visual majesty, it’s the work of a director in full command.

“Rust and Bone” is not a film that works for everyone; the inane Entertainment Weekly included it on its worst of 2012 list. But if it wraps you up, it’s a wrenching, overpowering creation. I’d call it one of the most satisfying love stories in recent memory.

Rust and Bone

4 stars

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts

Director: Jacques Audiard

Running time: 120 minutes

Rating: R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, rough language, and nudity. In French with English subtitles.

The Lowdown: A struggling single father and a killer whale trainer develop an intimate relationship.