on 1 Jan, 1970
from Time Out New York (US) / by Elisabeth Vincentelli
Marion Cotillard finds herself by losing herself—in Edith Piaf.
Biopic acting is its very own beast, as thespians maneuver to avoid both reverent imitation and showy histrionics. The challenge is even greater when the subject is known as a singularly magnetic performer. Such is the burden that fell upon Marion Cotillard, 31, when director Olivier Dahan cast her as Edith Piaf in his film La Vie en Rose. As if this weren’t daunting enough, Piaf and France itself remain so symbiotically linked that portraying the singer is like being asked to play Judy Garland and De Gaulle rolled into one.
The doe-eyed Cotillard was able to eerily immerse herself into her role, no doubt helped by the fact that despite having starred in three hit (in France) Taxi movies, she had a low celeb profile—even if alert cinephiles had spotted her in Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s perverse Innocence, or as an angel of death in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (both 2004). TONY got on the horn with the soft-spoken actor, calling from her home base of Paris.
Did your artistic family have anything to do with you going into acting?
My parents are theater actors and directors. I didn’t have a preference for theater or film, but I got the opportunity to make movies rather quickly and I found something there that suited me—a way to express what I needed to express, a very intimate dialogue with the camera.
You’ve always alternated between big commercial movies like Taxi or Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, and smaller, artier ones like Innocence or Abel Ferrara’s Mary. Is this a conscious decision?
It isn’t so much a choice as a way to conceive of this job. I was really lucky, for instance, to meet Abel Ferrara, who’s passionate and possessed by what he does. And in addition to being a lot of fun, that experience allowed me to work with Forest Whitaker, whom I’ve admired for a long time.
You’ve often given life to opaque characters, like Mademoiselle Eva in Innocence—there’s not that much to them on the page. How do you fill in the blanks?
There’s a lot of wealth in mystery. That’s why I’m attracted to these parts: They leave room for imagination.
It’s the exact opposite with Piaf: Her life is well known, so you had to deal with information overload.
Right, but you can have a lot of information about someone and have that person remain mysterious; her dimension is so great that you can’t know or understand everything. As a matter of fact, I knew almost nothing about Piaf’s life when I got the role. But when I started to discover her reach, I felt closer to her, and her iconic status became less scary. I was actually more afraid at the prospect of playing a 47-year-old woman—especially considering that at that stage of her life she looked 20 years older than she actually was—than an icon. I was 30 at the time, and it wasn’t easy to make it all work.
Was the film shot chronologically?
We shot in order of what made sense economically. So we started the heavy-makeup sessions on the fourth day. But that’s when I realized that dealing with all her ages in the first weeks was best. There were almost three different characters: a girl of 19, a young woman of 30 and a woman in her forties; as weeks went by, I had figured out all my technical and emotional marks within each era of her life.
Your lip-synching of Piaf’s songs looks remarkably natural.
I started by taking singing lessons to understand Piaf’s technique. Lip-synching realistically to someone else’s singing means learning how that person “breathed” the songs. The entire body also plays a part, and I needed to understand how to position myself.
Then I figured out that the best way for me to actually lip-synch was to sing at the same time as the track, knowing I had to hear it more than my own voice—those days were pretty painful for the crew because I asked them to turn the volume way up! I knew that if I didn’t emit any sound, it wouldn’t work.
What has the movie changed for you as an actor?
There’s a new sense of closeness—the feedback I get is very emotional. During her lifetime, Piaf triggered very strong emotions. That people are able to feel them by watching the movie is a testament to Olivier’s achievement.
La Vie en Rose opens Fri 8