Day: June 9, 2007

Magnifique!

from The Telegraph (UK) / by Benjamin Secher

Actress Marion Cotillard talks to Benjamin Secher about her performance of a lifetime as legendary French singer Edith Piaf

‘The first time I heard Edith Piaf sing, I cried,” says 31-year-old Marion Cotillard, who plays the legendary French singer in a heartbreaking new biopic, La Vie en rose. “I was so moved – and so impressed that in only three or four minutes she could tell a whole story that would make me cry.”

Piaf certainly had a handle on misery. During the 47 years of her short life, she lost almost everyone who mattered to her: her parents ran off to the circus when she was a baby, leaving her to grow up in her grandmother’s brothel; her only child died of meningitis; and the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, was killed in a plane crash only two years after they’d met.

Yet somehow, despite all this, she soared from the filthy Parisian streets of Belleville to the glitzy heights of stardom, touring the world with a clutch of show-stopping tunes delivered always in that miraculous, seismic voice: it shook her birdlike frame, held audiences spellbound, and transmuted the gloom that enshrouded her life into musical gold.

In trying to shoehorn the full turbulent Piaf story into a single film, director Olivier Dahan was always going to have his work cut out. But if his beautiful, big-hearted epic occasionally strains at the seams, it is more than redeemed by its main attraction. Simply put, Cotillard, as Piaf, gives the most remarkable performance you’ll see on film this year.

Whether portraying the scruffy teenage ingénue – spotted singing on a street corner and ushered on to the stage of his nightclub by Louis Leplée (played by an avuncular Gérard Depardieu) – or the ageing diva, crippled by arthritis and addicted to morphine, Cotillard’s extraordinary turn seduces the eye and assaults the heart.

In the flesh, the Parisian actress is gentle, softly spoken, telling funny self-deprecating stories in her slow, careful English. But on screen, she is a titan: boisterous, bruising, flamboyant, and so utterly steeped in the spirit of Piaf that it’s hard to imagine any other actress filling the part.

“Ah, but I was not the one the financiers wanted to see in this role,” she confides in her smokey whisper, a smile flickering across her face. “And it’s not very hard to guess who they would have preferred. Frankly, if I’d had to cast someone to play Piaf, I would also have chosen [Amélie and Da Vinci Code star] Audrey Tautou instead of me: she’s far more bankable.

“But in the end Olivier [Dahan] was sure he wanted to make the film with me,” she adds. “So the financiers went away, leaving us with less money, less time to shoot, but the chance to make the movie we wanted.”

Cotillard is already something of a star in her own country, thanks to an award-winning supporting role in A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2004 follow-up to Amélie, and regular appearances in Luc Besson’s blockbusting Taxi franchise. On this side of the Channel, her face is less familiar – you may have spotted her fleetingly in Tim Burton’s Big Fish or opposite Russell Crowe in A Good Year – but with La Vie en rose she seizes a place in the acting top rank. Whispers of an Oscar nomination are already in the air.

She saw the star-making potential of the role the moment she read the script. “I was prepared to fight for this part,” she says. “I was ready to do almost anything.”

One thing she didn’t have to do was sing. Although Cotillard is a talented chanteuse, and already knew Piaf’s music back-to-front having long ago acquired the habit of listening to it in her trailer whenever preparing to act a particularly emotional scene, Dahan was committed to using Piaf’s own recordings for the soundtrack.

“Her voice was unique,” says Cotillard, who convincingly lip-synchs her way through the film’s big numbers. “So it was obvious that for me to try to learn that voice in the three months we had would have been crazy, impossible.”

“Actually,” she adds with a mischievous cackle, “I do get to sing one song in the film. But it comes in a scene where Piaf is drunk and sings like hell – which I guess is why they kept my voice for that one.”

Cotillard insists that she was undaunted by the prospect of taking on the mantle of a French national treasure, an iconic figure whose funeral, attended by 40,000 fans, brought central Paris to a standstill.

“Actually I was far more afraid of playing an old lady,” she says. “I know what it feels like to be a 30-year-old woman who has achieved things as a performer. But I have no idea what it is to be old – to be 47 but look 77 and be about to die. All I knew was that I had to be very precise in my performance, especially for the death-bed scene. That sort of thing is so fragile, if you get it just slightly wrong you end up looking ridiculous.”

For the physical transformation, Cotillard was given plenty of help from the special-effects team – by the end of the film, her beauty is all but concealed beneath a thick cake of pallid make-up that took six hours to apply – but for the singer’s emotional development, she drew on a painful memory from her own childhood.

“I was inspired by a great uncle who used to live at home with us,” she says. “I still remember him perfectly, all the movements of the person he was just before he died: the way he walked, the way he behaved, and that horrible life you lead when you are ill inside. For the old Piaf, I took all of that.”

To capture Piaf’s peculiar blend of infirmity and silliness, Cotillard also took on the mannerisms of a four-year-old girl she knows. The result, a striking combination of physical frailty with emotional volatility, makes Cotillard’s Piaf a far from straightforwardly sympathetic character. The flip side of her contagious joie de vivre is a selfish capriciousness: she casts off lovers like dirty stockings and, as her fame grows, neglects her old friends, or humiliates them in front of her starrier new acquaintances.

“When I started reading about her life I discovered a bright side and a dark side,” says Cotillard. “Some aspects of that dark side I initially found very hard to accept – like the tyranny that she could use over people. But then I realised that her selfish behaviour was motivated by her desire to keep people around her. She was so scared to be alone. And once you understand that, you stop judging her.”

In preparing for the role, Cotillard read and heard many stories about Piaf – few figures in French popular culture have generated quite so much myth and rumour -but one source she grew to trust more than any other was the singer’s old friend, Ginou Richet, who offered her a surprising insight into Piaf’s character. “Ginou shared with me many things that she thought would help me to understand Piaf,” says Cotillard.

“But above all she described her as a happy person. Yes happy. Even though she lived such crazy tragedy, such huge tragedy, Piaf loved to have fun. She loved life.”

• La Vie en rose (12A) is released on June 22

Capturing the Sparrow

from The Star Ledger (US) / by Stephen Whitty

French actress faced challenge in playing Piaf

“You have to struggle,” the slight, saucer-eyed star says, leaning forward and speaking in an intense French accent. “You have to have your heart broken. That’s the reality of life and if you are protected from this sadness, then how can you grow? How can you recognize real happiness when you see it?”

It is a rhetorical question, but it is also the credo of someone who is at peace with themselves. Who has embraced life in its totality — its childish pleasures, its adult ecstasies, its lifelong disappointments. And yet who can say honestly, at any time, yes, I lived each day to the utmost. Who can assert, I regret nothing.

Someone like Edith Piaf.

Or someone like Marion Cotillard, the 31-year-old actress currently sitting in a frigidly air-conditioned New York hotel room, talking emotionally about the woman she’s just played in “La Vie En Rose.”

She’s not the only one feeling passionate about it. The film — which just opened Friday in New York — has played in Europe to high praise. American critics are already hailing Cotillard’s work as a breakthrough — not just in her career, but in the art itself. More than a few are calling it the year’s first performance to feel like Best Actress material.

Director Olivier Dahan is pleased by the acclaim Cotillard is getting, but unsurprised.

“I wanted her from the very beginning,” he says. “I didn’t know so much about Marion, I wasn’t a fan — I had seen her in maybe three movies. But one of them, I didn’t really like, I don’t even remember it, but she was playing with a lot of soul, and that is not so common. And when I began to plan Piaf, Marion came very quickly to my mind.”

What came to Cotillard was elation — and then a strange kinship.

“I didn’t know anything of Piaf’s life so I began studying,” she says. She read books that detailed Piaf’s miserable childhood — abandoned by first her mother, then her father, raised in a brothel, turned out on the street, hustling centimes to survive. She studied films of Piaf acting, singing, giving interviews and quickly becoming France’s own Dietrich and Garland and Holiday all rolled up in one.

“And I began to feel close to her,” Cotillard says. “I felt a connection. I think every human being experiences one day, on some level, to be abandoned by someone, something. And that Piaf felt this, and felt a necessity to share that strong emotion, to take what she felt and offer that to an audience — that, I thought, was beautiful.”

Still, Cotillard couldn’t quite keep her own anxieties from creeping in.

“After I felt I knew her, I did not feel so scared of playing an icon,” she says. “But I was scared of playing an old lady. Even if she was not that old — she was only 47 when she died — she looked as if she were 70. And that was the scary part, to find the voice she had at that age, and the behavior and yet the energy that she still had. I was scared it would not be realistic. I was scared that people would say, ‘Oh. my, what is she doing? Where are we going with this?'”

Where Cotillard seems to be going with this — after a career best known to Americans for supporting parts in “A Good Year,” “Big Fish” and “A Very Long Engagement” — is an entirely new level. Where she’s coming from is a family tradition that always treated acting as not only a calling, but a profession.

“My parents are stage actors and I remember when I was a little girl watching them, seeing them tell stories to so many people they didn’t know,” she says. “And when I was very young, my father, he had a theater troupe and they performed plays for children and went to many places in the world. And it was fascinating to me that all these adults could make their life telling stories, making people laugh, making them cry. They did it all with such passion and the passion was contagious and for me, the fascination is still there.”

She grew up mostly in the countryside and, she says, she didn’t particularly fit in.

“In school they would ask the question, ‘What do you want to do for a living when you are an adult?’ and I would answer ‘Actress,'” she says. “And they would say ‘No, that’s not a job.’ And I would say, ‘But my parents are actors!’ And they would say again ‘No, that’s not a job, being an actress. What do you want to do for a living?’… It was only when I moved to Paris that I felt I was not an alien.”

The good parts were a while in coming — she made her debut at 18 in an episode of TV’s cosmic swashbuckler “Highlander,” a credit that she greets with giggles when reminded of — but she kept at it. Her parents were supportive, but didn’t hide the difficulties ahead.

“They never tried to protect me and my brothers from the experiences we had to live, and I think that’s very courageous for a parent,” she says. “To have that strength not to overprotect or interfere in some things which are hard to live, but necessary, you know? Because you have to live many experiences, and not only good ones, to be an actor. To be a human being, too — it makes you grow up.”
Cotillard was also lucky enough to be growing up at a time when French filmmaking — led by a new new wave of filmmakers including Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix — were starting a sexy, stylish rebellion. Influenced more by American movies and comic books than Cahiers du Cinema and Marxist theory, their “cinema du look” filled the screen with eye-catching cinematography, fantastic plots, extreme action — and new faces.

And eventually one of them was Cotillard’s.

“It is a great thing, because more and more French directors are allowing themselves to move outside of this very specific universe, this very specific way to tell stories,” she says. “There is more and more freedom in the cinema and that’s very exciting for the actors, because there is now all these doors you can open.”

The doors Cotillard was opening — including roles in “My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into an Argument” and all three parts of the Besson-written trilogy “Taxi” — led to the United States. Not surprisingly, standing on the other side were often among the most open-minded of American directors. Abel Ferrara, the wild man of indie cinema, cast her in “Mary,” a story of religious obsessions; giddy fantasist Tim Burton put her in his dreamy “Big Fish,” a movie about strange sealife, circus sideshows and an old man’s tall tales.

“Abel, he is such a character, and he sometimes makes movies for zero money, but he lives for this, to share things, to share his passions,” she says. “And Tim, he is so passionate, too. I remember the first day of shooting the movie, he was just jumping like a little squirrel everywhere, so excited, shouting ‘I want it to begin, I want it to begin!’ He could not wait. And it was my first day, being on the set with my idol to do his movie, and I could not wait, too.”

She couldn’t wait to have her first big American co-starring part either, in “A Good Year.” Still, the fact that her leading man was Russell Crowe did give her at least a moment’s pause.

“I knew his reputation, of course,” she says. “And he knows that all the people know his reputation. But he is an amazing actor. When you play with him, you forget about the camera, you forget about the crew, you become the reality, and when you have that as an actor, that’s a marvel. And what I saw on the set was a very simple guy, very nice, very funny, very kind. So what I saw did not match with the reputation he has.” She shrugs. “But, well, voila.”

And now — voila — she is in “La Vie En Rose.” Full of feeling and startling mimicry, it’s the sort of performance that’s won Oscars for American stars like Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line.” Yet there is a difference, and for some critics (and, eventually, nominating voters) it may be a crucial one — those actors sang their own songs. Cotillard lip-syncs hers.

Dahan — an almost stereotypical French bohemian, with a backwards-facing beret and a never-ending stream of cigarettes — brushes the topic aside.

“From the beginning, I wanted Piaf’s songs to play in the movie,” he says. “That for me was fundamental, to have the real voice. Marion is a good singer, actually, and she loves to sing, and she would sing even as we did the scenes, and it was good. But in the end, I replaced it with the voice of Piaf. To me, it was never possible any other way.”

Yet Cotillard — who has written and performed her own music — is less sanguine.

“I was disappointed not to have this possibility, yes,” she admits. “But with the time we had to prepare the movie — which was only three months, which is nothing to prepare such a movie — I knew that it was not possible. And so we used Piaf’s own recordings — except for the beginning, when she is singing in the street, because there are no recordings of those, and we found another singer who did an amazing job. And then I heard her voice and how it all sounded I knew it would be perfect, and I could not hold on to the frustrations.”

Besides, this single Parisian has — as her parents trained her — learned to accept things as they come, and learn from them, and move on. Sometimes those things have been informative and inspiring, like her work around the world on behalf of Greenpeace, conservation and ecology. Sometimes they’ve been exciting and enriching, like her difficult and devastating work in “La Vie En Rose.”

And sometimes, like the jobs that lie before her — perhaps an American project that’s “too early” to talk about yet, perhaps in a homegrown film she describes only as “very, very French” — they remain tantalizing question marks. Which sometimes is the best thing of all.

“I see differences in every movie because all the directors are different,” she says. “And that’s what I like in this job, you travel in so many universes and every time is different. It’s still to me the fascinating profession it was when I watched my parents, and an amazing process. It’s like a circle that I need. When I play, I feel I empty myself. And then, as it goes on, I fill myself again.”