Why playing Piaf is risky for a rising French star

from The Sunday Times, Culture (UK) / by Ryan Gilbey

Marion Cotillard’s youthful exuberance made her seem an odd fit for the harrowing life story of Edith Piaf: not least to herself. But she succeeds brilliantly

Those familiar with the young French actress Marion Cotillard are likely to have dropped their croissants in surprise when it was announced that she had been cast as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan’s biopic about the iconic chan-teuse. Not that she hadn’t proved herself, in a mere handful of roles, to be one of cinema’s most playful and thrilling new talents. Critics who spoke of her promise risked sounding almost churlish in the face of the accomplishment displayed by Cotillard in home-grown outings such as A Very Long Engagement, Innocence and Love Me If You Dare. Those performances, along with her American debut in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, had left audiences eager to see what she would pull off next. But Piaf? Playing the lead in The Hattie Jacques Story would hardly have been less risky.

The picture was nominated for the Golden Bear in Berlin this year, where it opened the film festival and played in competition, but the real test was France. Happily, the country has embraced the film and its star. Le Monde declared that Cotillard “surpasses what is generally expected of an actress”; in its opening week, La Vie en Rose notched up more than 1.5m admissions – almost a third more than Amélie managed in its first seven days back in 2001.

It seemed entirely possible that, in taking on the “Kid Sparrow” and all the cultural baggage that comes with her, this spring chicken might be pecking off more than she could chew. Surprisingly, one of the loudest squeals of disbelief to greet the news of Cotillard’s appointment came from Cotillard herself. “The idea of me as Piaf was completely crazy,” the 31-year-old trills in an incredulous, high-pitched voice that makes the decanters sing in her London hotel suite. “But it seemed obvious to Olivier. I thought, ‘Okay, he’s crazy.’ Then I read the script, and I wanted to be as crazy as him.”

“Crazy” is a word Cotillard reaches for in practically every sentence. It might also be invoked to describe her personality – in the nicest way. When next year’s awards season rolls around, and she nabs the best-actress prize that should by rights be hers for La Vie en Rose, her reaction on Oscar night could well make Roberto Benigni’s notorious seat-vaulting incident look subdued, at least if her animated behaviour during our conversation is anything to go by.

When I enter the room, she is edged into the corner of her seat, hugging herself and generally looking small enough to slip down the back of the sofa like a piece of loose change. She may have chosen her blue cardigan-cum-shawl for the aura of protection and cosiness it brings her; certainly, there is a frailty in her posture, and something imploring in her big, hungry eyes. Perhaps that’s why her casting as Piaf was met by some people with bewilderment. The two women share a physical slightness, but Piaf’s voice and presence, not to mention the reputation she accrued, made her seem colossal. Could Cotillard perform the same miraculous reversal?

In a word – yes. She is positively volcanic in the film, and she’s scarcely any different in person. If you find yourself in a room with her, my advice is to put on your protective eyewear and stand well back. Cotillard wastes no time in casting off her deceptively shy exterior. Over the course of the next hour, she guffaws frequently, cheers, hoots, punches the air occasionally, jumps to her feet and dances once or twice, and acts out the stories she is telling right there on the rug. (Her father once worked as a mime, which may explain that last part.)

In the film, she plays Piaf from the age of 19 through to her death, less than 30 years later. And, though the singer died at just 47, she looked at least 80, with her haggard, sunken face and that fiercely receded hairline. Indeed, if La Vie en Rose is primarily the triumph of Cotillard – whose stiff, jutting posture and spread-legged scuttle evoke the mix of strength and fragility in Piaf – praise should be reserved, too, for the astonishing endeavours of the make-up department that gave this impish, slightly sultry beauty the look of a haunted rag doll.

So crucial was that make-up to Dahan’s conception that the entire production hung in the balance when it seemed the necessary effects would be impossible to achieve. The director had conceived the movie as an intimate portrait of a legend, rather than a lofty or reverential paean in the Hollywood tradition. Hence his demand for tight close-ups, which meant, in turn, that Cotillard’s make-up would have to be flawless, lest any shortcomings be cruelly exposed by the camera’s scrutiny. Watching the film, you can appreciate the value of Dahan’s in-your-face approach. This is a biopic of an unusually grungy stripe.

On the first day of shooting, however, Cotillard feared that the camera might never start rolling. “We weren’t prepared,” she says, wincing at the memory. “The make-up artist and the director of photography were arguing with Olivier, telling him, ‘It’s not possible. She’s only 30 – you can’t come that close and still make her look old.’ And Olivier was saying, ‘I want to be close to her face. We will do this.’ He pushed them to find a way.” I ask Cotillard what she was doing while her collaborators were wrangling with one another. “I was crying!” she laughs, squeezing out a long, keening wail to illustrate the extent of her desperation. “I was telling them, ‘Please, make me old!’ It drove me crazy. And when they finally found a way …” She raises her arms in celebration. “Woooo-hoooo!”

That expression of relief hardly conveys the rigmarole that Cotillard went through in order to become the scrawny older Piaf. The veteran make-up artist Didier Lavergne, known for his work with Roman Polanski, transformed her face into a chalky kabuki mask with hollowed eyes. Her hairline was shaved back drastically; a wig resembling orange tumbleweed completed the ghastly ensemble.

Piaf hadn’t played a big part in Cotillard’s life before Dahan came calling. “I only knew three or four of her songs,” she recalls. “For me, she was an amazing voice with a little black dress. I knew nothing of her tragic life.” When Cotillard heard on the grapevine that Dahan was writing a script about Piaf, and that he was considering her for the part, she was level-headed enough to take no notice. She puts it more sweetly than that herself. “It entered straight into here,” she says, pointing at her ear, “and was then directly rejected out of this one here.” What a charmingly circuitous way of saying “in one ear and out the other”. The interpreter, who is perched in the corner of the room in case the actress needs prompting with a word or two, smiles affectionately. (In fact, Cotillard calls on the interpreter’s services only once, when she’s discussing her acting teacher, and inquires, about the word “coach”: “Est-ce que c’est une grande voiture?”) Had Cotillard allowed herself to get excited about playing Piaf before the ink was dry on the first draft, she reasons, she could have been setting herself up for some serious disappointment. “Olivier might have changed his mind. And I’d be there with all my books and research, and the part would go to another woman, then I’d be, like, ‘Oh, okay, bye … hey, wait, do you want my Piaf books?’” She ends this impromptu playlet, during which she has shuffled the length of the sofa, by extending a feeble hand to the imaginary rival who has just swiped the role from under her nose. Evidently, she has either experienced that scenario first hand or spends a lot of time in a fantasy world, dreaming up elaborate what-ifs. Possibly both.

It seems impossible now that her performance won’t come to be seen as both the turning point in her career and a textbook example of how the greatest performers can disappear into a part. (It may even transpire to be her Raging Bull.) Multiplex audiences will recognise Cotillard from the larky Taxi trilogy, or from playing Russell Crowe’s love interest in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, but, while she’s perfectly agreeable in such confections, it is in La Vie en Rose that you experience her undiluted energy. There are any number of moments in the picture in which she will take your breath away – my own vote goes to the scene in which the mother who neglected her as a child comes begging for food, but receives a mouthful of a different sort.

When you leave the cinema, however, it’s the inevitable show stopper – Cotillard, as Piaf, delivering a goosebump-inducing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien at the Olympia, in Paris – that will linger in the memory, and not only because it is deferred almost until the end, in a classic case of saving the best for last. Sure, the actress is lip-synching, but the gusto with which she hurls herself into the rendition makes such details irrelevant. “When we shot that scene, it was a very special day,” she says, visibly tingling, before correcting herself. “No. Not a special day. It was the special day. We were actually in l’Olympia. Piaf’s soul lives somewhere in that place, I can tell you. And her best friend was in the audience, watching me and looking overwhelmed. I went on stage, and something happened. I didn’t do anything. It was like I wasn’t even there. I had lived with the character for several months. Piaf and I were like an old married couple: we communicated without speaking.”

From the outset, Cotillard had based her performance on such intuition, rather than analysis or rehearsal. “I was afraid to rehearse. I didn’t want to become stale or mechanical. But the whole time, I was working on everything internally, saving it for the set. When I felt pleasure inside, I knew I was on the good way.” Once again, the interpreter correctly chooses not to interject with a humdrum translation such as “on the right track.” We both know what Cotillard means, and we like the way she says it.

It’s a pleasure to listen to her discussing acting. She manages to talk about her intuitive process without either dispelling the magic or lapsing into opacity. When it comes to accepting parts she likes, she makes it sound like falling in love. Take Tina Lombardi, the stylish, heartbroken femme fatale she played in A Very Long Engagement. She had all of eight minutes’ screen time, yet she made the very most of it. “I knew Tina was special when I read the script,” she purrs. “She fights for love, which is a beautiful thing to do. So, when the movie came out and lots of people loved her, I could understand that, because I loved her immediately too.”

Whether Tina was killing a man by shooting at the mirrors over his bed or appearing on death row – where, unexpectedly frumpy for once, she announced: “I regret nothing except my hair” – it was impossible not to root for her. The performance won Cotillard a César for best supporting actress. “I was happy for that,” she shrugs. Clearly, we have stumbled on one subject this candid woman is reluctant to discuss – her success. “Playing Tina was really the dream, and the César was a little cherry on top.”

The mention of awards gives her the perfect excuse to change the subject and tell me about her father, the actor-director-teacher Jean-Claude Cotillard. “While I was on set playing Piaf, he won an award for directing a play. I was screaming and telling everyone about it.” She springs into action and does a lap of honour around the sofa. “I was like, ‘Woooooo! My father won an award!’ All day. By the end, the whole crew wanted to kill me.” I wouldn’t like to say I know how they feel, but she does this whooping and cheering routine about her father’s award a further three times during our conversation.

It turns out that every member of Cotillard’s immediate family is artistic in some way. One of her younger twin brothers is a writer, the other a sculptor. Both her parents have acted, and she treasures memories of growing up in a bustling, creative household in the countryside near Orléans. “When I was little, there were so many people in my house,” she reflects. “Everyone was enjoying themselves, rehearsing, having fun. It was like a playground.” I ask if she realised then that not all children lived that way. “Yes, because my friends wanted to be at our house, where the fun was!”

Even the times when her parents went travelling with their acting troupe were a source of joy and excitement for her. “It was amazing to get letters from them when they were in Hong Kong or Peru or wherever. And when they came home, they would bring me ponchos and all sorts of gifts – it was magical.” It’s not hard to see the connection between the young Cotillard, pop-eyed over tales of her parents’ exotic adventures, and the adult version, who says she likes to find roles that are as different as possible from one another, and to search for “pleasure and craziness”. Even that cardigan-shawl she’s wearing has an unmistakable touch of the poncho about it.

“My parents definitely sparked something in me,” she says. “I’m sure of it. I saw how happy and fulfilled they were, and I knew I wanted the same job.” And now she’s got it – right down to the insistence on having fun. “Playing Piaf took seven months, in total, day and night. It took over my life. I even dreamt about Piaf – we had some night meetings. Seven months of my life for the greatest pleasure I ever had doing my job.” She gives a naughty, ecstatic laugh, as though she can’t believe her luck. “And if I had to do it again – oh! – I would.”

La Vie en Rose opens in the UK on June 22


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