on 1 Jan, 1970
from The Courier-Mail (Australia) / by Ryan Gilbey
FANS of French actress Marion Cotillard dropped their croissants in shock when it was announced she had been cast as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
Not that she hadn’t proved herself, in a 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 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 playing Piaf in Oliver Dahan’s biopic?
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.
French newspaper 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 1,500,000 admissions – almost a third more than the internationally popular French romantic-comedy Amélie managed in its first seven days 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 says in an incredulous, high-pitched voice that makes the decanters sing in her London hotel suite.
“But it seemed obvious to Oliver. I thought, OK, 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 Italian director Roberto Benigni’s notorious seat-vaulting incident at the ceremony in 1998 look subdued.
Yet for all that animation there is a certain frailty in her posture, and something imploring in her big eyes. Perhaps that’s why her casting as Piaf was met by some 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. Cotillard wastes no time in casting off her deceptively shy exterior. Over the course of this one-hour interview, she guffaws, cheers, hoots, punches the air, jumps to her feet and dances, 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. And, though the singer died aged 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 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 exposed.
Watching the film, you can appreciate the value of Dahan’s in-your-face approach.
On the first day of shooting, however, Cotillard feared 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 he wanted close-ups. He pushed them to find a way.”
So what was Cotillard 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 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 mask with hollowed eyes. Her hairline was shaved back; 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.
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.
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.
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, before correcting herself. “No. Not a special day. It was the special day. We were actually in 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 track.”
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.”
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 talk 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.”
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, of course, craziness.
“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.
“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 cinemas on Thursday.