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.”


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