Marion Cotillard vs. the Calendar

from / by Brett Buckalew

It’s already a strong year for female lead performances. Too bad the Academy generally only has eyes for the fourth quarter.

The last four months of each year is a time for the film industry to quit its summertime tomfoolery and start putting out the serious-minded prestige films that get the Academy’s attention.

All one needs to do is look at the recent Oscar winners in the acting categories to confirm the legitimacy of this seasonal trend. Last year, only one of the four victorious performers – Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine’s Best Supporting Actor – had a film that was released before September. The year before, all four acting category winners did their prize-winning work in the fall-winter period.

There’s no reason to believe that 2007 will play out any differently. Javier Bardem seems to have at least a nomination secured for his villainous turn in the November release No Country for Old Men, thanks to the acclaim his performance received at the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere. And a number of other actors – including Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) and Halle Berry (Things We Lost in the Fire) – are generating Oscar buzz for films that no one has even seen yet.

It’s only fair to give the fourth-quarter-release award-season hopefuls the benefit of the doubt and assume their work will indeed be trophy-worthy, but still, there’s a major downside to favoring their chances: doing so overlooks the quality work that actors have turned in during the first eight months of the year.

Will Chris Cooper’s arguably career-best work as a tormented, neo-conservative FBI turncoat in Breach be recognized with a Best Actor nomination? Will Robert Downey Jr.’s typically excellent performance as a crime beat reporter who falls into a self-destructive spiral in Zodiac earn him a deserved slot in the Supporting Actor category?

And what of all the great, fearless lead-female performances that have graced the screen throughout the first half of 2007? Carice van Houten gave real urgency to a Dutch-Jewish resistance fighter’s struggle for survival during WWII in Black Book, though the film’s sexually risqué touches may freak out older Academy members. Julie Christie played a cheated-upon spouse’s descent into Alzheimer’s with sensitivity and ambiguity in Away From Her, but the similarly themed, more accessible The Notebook didn’t land any nominations for its cast three summers ago. Meanwhile, a de-glamorized Ashley Judd is in a movie (Bug) that will be seen as too dark, while the endearing Keri Russell is in one (Waitress) that will be seen as too light.

Add Marion Cotillard’s performance in La Vie en Rose to the list. One advantage she has that these other early-’07-release leading ladies don’t have is that she’s playing a historical figure – revered mid-20th-century singing star Edith Piaf – which certainly worked wonders for last year’s lead-acting Oscar winners, Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland) and Helen Mirren (Elizabeth II in The Queen). Factors that slightly diminish her chances are that the film is French-language (actors speaking in a foreign tongue are rarely recognized by the Academy) and, of course, that it opened in early June instead of late November.

If Cotillard’s staggering embodiment of Piaf isn’t rewarded with at least a nomination at year’s end, it won’t be for quality-based reasons. As with every great portrayal of an existing person, Cotillard’s performance works because she finds the vulnerable humanity within the larger-than-life icon.

Standing at a tiny 4’ 8” (her stage name, “Piaf,” translates to “sparrow”) and with a body that had an unfortunate tendency to attract disease (a case of conjunctivitis that befell her as a little girl left her temporarily blind, and she died of cancer at the tragically early age of 47), Piaf was a commanding stage star possessed of an incongruous physical frailty. Cotillard, whose natural beauty in real life has been on display in American films like Big Fish and A Good Year, not only commits to the character’s wobbly physicality but has the creative audacity to suggest that Piaf’s heart was just as fragile.

The actress enlarges her eyes to near-dinner-plate size, using them to aid her interpretation of Piaf as someone constitutionally incapable of concealing her emotions. Those massive peepers seem constantly on the verge of tearing up in rage, sadness, or delight. Cotillard also gives Piaf a fierce, raspy cackle of a laugh that erupts out of her, sometimes against her better judgment.

But given the nature of show business, Piaf wouldn’t have risen to fame if she didn’t also have a strong, diva-like will, and Cotillard gets that just right too. Whether criticizing the pastrami sandwich at her lover’s (middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan, played here by Jean-Pierre Martins) favorite deli for being not haute cuisine enough for her refined palate, or carelessly sloshing around her champagne glass at a dinner party held in her honor, Cotillard’s Piaf is someone who needs to perform and assert her dominance even off the stage.

As a film, La Vie en Rose doesn’t quite keep up with the grand showmanship and emotional complexity of the performance at its center, but it has a few impressive tricks up its sleeve. Writer-director Olivier Dahan’s evocative visual design and refreshingly unconventional fractured-chronology storytelling flow go a long way towards keeping the feeling of musical-biopic fatigue at bay.

Though other recent examples of the genre, such as Walk the Line and Ray, have been just as well-crafted as this one, the fact that all three of them strain to cram decades of their respective subjects’ life into just two hours and change leads to the conclusion that maybe it’s time for a more inventive, more focused approach. Look at Gus Van Sant’s ingenious study of a faux-Kurt Cobain figure, Last Days, which kept its timeframe limited to, well, the last days of a tortured musician.

But just as Ray and Walk the Line led to Oscar victories for their respective stars, Jamie Foxx and Reese Witherspoon, it’d be nice to see La Vie en Rose follow suit and nab a Golden Guy for Cotillard. That’s one musical-biopic trend I wouldn’t quibble with.


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