A bird in the hand

from The Sunday Times (UK) / by Demetrios Matheou

It’s the role a French actress would kill for — that of national heroine and Little Sparrow Edith Piaf. But Marion Cotillard has never shrunk from a challenge: she’s even squaring up to Russell Crowe, says Demetrios Matheou

There’s a scene in the recent French film A Very Long Engagement you don’t forget in a hurry. A woman ties a man to a bed, straddles him, then shoots shards of glass into his flesh — all in the name of avenging her lost love. The film was hailed in all the pre-release hype as the reunion of Amélie’s gamine star, Audrey Tautou, and her director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but it was Marion Cotillard, the French actress playing the avenging angel, who caught the attention and stole the film. In fact, appearing in just a handful of scenes, Cotillard’s fabulous Corsican angel of death, Tina Lombardi — who uses disguise, deceit and sex to get to her victims — cried out for a whole film all to herself.

Cotillard was already a rising star in her country when she was cast in Jeunet’s film, thanks to her role in the three popular (if vacuous) Taxi films. Lombardi, however, won her a César award and has supercharged her rise to the top of a new generation of Gallic actresses making their mark both at home and abroad. She is currently filming A Good Year, in Provence, with the powerhouse duo of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe; she then walks into the role of a lifetime for any French actress, playing Edith Piaf.

French women have always offered a certain je ne sais quoi for international audiences — today, as Cotillard acts opposite Crowe, Tautou is lending support to Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code. They can end up as little more than exotic wallpaper in Hollywood films (Emmanuelle Béart’s unhappy time on Mission: Impossible springs to mind), but, presumably, what brings them to the attention of American directors in the first place is the daring and edginess of their work on home turf. And the sultry, ingenious Lombardi is no exception on Cotillard’s already fat CV. “I do like extreme characters,” she admits, perching on the edge of her seat in a Paris hotel, “but I think they are extreme because they are full of passion — they are rich inside. Tina Lombardi was such a beautiful character. What I love in her is that she’s not a cliché of the femme fatale. She’s just a girl who loves her man and feels desperate about losing him. It’s not just about revenge. She is in that huge country, searching for something. She’s lost, destroyed inside.”

Cotillard actively wanted to vent some fury after her first Hollywood outing, in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, in which she played Albert Finney’s daughter-in-law, entranced by his outlandish stories. “I have noticed that a character always comes to me when I need it,” she says. “When I wanted to play a romantic comedy, one immediately came along. When I wanted to work with a director who gave me a passion for acting, Tim Burton asked me to do Big Fish. When I was making that film — and my character, Josephine, is very sweet — I knew my next need was anger. Then I read Jean-Pierre’s script. I was thinking, ‘Thank you, life, thank you again.’ I am still impressed by these coincidences.”

There you have a map of Cotillard’s contradictory character. She is a grateful enthusiast who believes she leads a charmed life, yet she is brave, seeking out dark roles wherever she can, and usually investing the seemingly frothy parts with a psychotic edge. The “romantic comedy” she mentioned, Love Me If You Dare, gave new meaning to the genre: she and Guillaume Canet play childhood sweethearts whose affection is demonstrated in dares that are vindictive and dangerous. She confesses that she is interested only in “complicated people”. I introduce her to the phrase “warts and all” and she grabs it. “Yes, I like people warts and all.”

Her beauty is of an elfin variety that suggests ambiguity and mystery beneath the happy, friendly exterior. Dressed today in blue jeans and a green T-shirt, with little bowed shoes, she could be just another gorgeous Parisian talking earnestly over an espresso, were it not for the sense of something knowing and secret in her eyes. Lucile Hadzihalilovic, who directed Cotillard in Innocence, her latest film to open in the UK, speaks of her “melancholy air”, and this quality is much to the fore in her performance in an altogether enigmatic, discomfiting and brilliant film.

Based on a short story by the German author Frank Wedekind, Innocence is set in a girls’ school in the middle of a forest, cut off from the world by a huge wall with no door. New pupils arrive through catacombs at the boarding school-cum-prison, where they are taught dance, physical education and biology; at night, the older ones perform in a theatre for an unseen audience. If they try to escape, they are confined to the school for ever. The film is so open to interpretation that I have to ask Cotillard, who plays the girls’ dance teacher, what she thinks it is about. While her English — learnt at school, in Berlitz classes, watching English films without the benefit of subtitles — is perfect, she is, for the first time, lost for words. Finally, she comes up with: “I think what attracted me to do it is that Lucile has that talent — to create strange atmospheres with very little. On the set, everyone had different interpretations. We didn’t really discuss it, but I think that mystery about what we were doing created a kind of complicity between us.”

Setting out to create a back story for her sad, leotarded instructor, she decided that Mlle Eva had been one of the girls confined to the school for ever. “I wanted her to be like a 12-year-old, a child who is playing at being a teacher, but is really much like the other girls, because she hasn’t seen anything of the world.” To add a little spice, though, she and her co-star, Hélène de Fougerolles, decided their fellow teachers were secretly in love with each other. “And maybe they do something about it, who knows?” she smiles. The pair had to work with 35 children, aged between 5 and 12. “It was a movie without any money, so we had to be quick. At the same time, when you work with children, you have to respect their rhythm. But it was not especially difficult, because the kids were impassioned. They had huge courage.”

She knows something about acting young. The daughter of two actors (her father, Jean-Claude Cotillard, is also a drama teacher), she started acting as a teenager. “When I was younger, I was shy, not at ease with myself,” she recalls. “I did not speak much. So my imagination was big. Then, one day, I started to act, and I realised it was my way of sharing things with people, to talk with them.” At first, she suffered from stage fright, but says she is beginning to accept it as “a normal part of acting”. But the attention she garnered when, at 23, Luc Besson cast her as the long-suffering girlfriend of the speed-freak taxi driver in the French smash hit Taxi was another matter. “The success of that was hard to handle at the beginning, partly because, although I kind of like those movies, that role was not one I would normally look for. I wanted a role like Tina Lombardi. It was a little bit weird — I was young and didn’t know anything. So I handled it in my way, with my rhythm, which is quite slow.”

Doing things their own way, often for good causes, seems a very French-actress thing: Bardot demonstrating for animal rights; Béart risking arrest for her political campaigning and her subsequent, less controversial work with Unicef. Cotillard has long been a spokesperson for Greenpeace, one of her more engaging stunts being to volunteer to have her home tested for toxic chemicals as part of the charity’s Vacuum Clean the Chemical Industry campaign. “I will quit Greenpeace when we don’t need Greenpeace any more,” she says. “I hope it will be before I die, but I’m not optimistic.”

She is 30 this month, but has already accumulated a great deal of experience, having worked with directors as different as the Frenchman Arnaud Desplechin and the maverick American Abel Ferrara (in his upcoming Mary, with Juliette Binoche, about a woman obsessed with Mary Magdalene). In Mary and Big Fish, she plays supporting roles, but A Good Year sees her squaring up as the lead opposite the formidable Crowe. Based on a book by Peter “A Year in Provence” Mayle, it features the Australian as a London banker who moves to France, where he has inherited a vineyard, only to encounter an American, played by Cotillard, who claims the land is hers. She is typically unassuming about her growing international career. “I have an agent in LA,” she says matter-of-factly, “and there are some propositions sometimes. But it is just as important to me to work with directors in Japan, or Spain, or Italy, as in America. Also, my career is not the only important thing for me. My work and my private life are inseparable. I can’t be happy in one if I’m not happy in the other. I wouldn’t sacrifice everything for my work, but I need it to nourish my personal life.”

Meanwhile, if squaring up to Crowe with an American accent seems daunting, taking on Piaf in La Môme (“Little Sparrow”, La Môme Piaf, was the singer’s stage name) is the sort of challenge French actresses would die for — and could well do so in the attempt. “I’m really, really excited,” she says, unsurprisingly, “but it’s scary, too. People who knew her are still alive. She was such a fantastic person. I can ’t mess it up.” She laughs. “I’m not allowed to. I have to be good.” Will she do her own singing? “I love to sing, but I’m not a singer,” she says with a glint in her eye. “Let’s be realistic. She had a unique voice. I can’t sing like her.” She hasn’t decided yet how much she will lip-synch and how much she will perform herself. Piaf’s life, though — raised in a brothel, blind for four years as a child, helping the French resistance, being accused of murdering her manager and dying of cancer at 47 — has the mixture of passion and despair on which Cotillard clearly thrives.

She agrees with a sigh that the whole of France will be watching her effort. “I feel like I’m at the foot of Everest and I have to climb it. But I will do it.” Rien de rien. Innocence opens on September 30


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