Birds of a feather
from The Age (Australia) / Stephanie Bunbury
In an extraordinary turn as France’s ”little sparrow”, Marion Cotillard’s Edith Piaf is almost better than the original, writes Stephanie Bunbury.
All the time she was shooting La Vie en Rose, says Marion Cotillard, she barely slept at night. Edith Piaf, the peerless French chanteuse whose life was being brought to the screen, had always slept badly. Now she did the same. “One hour, two – three was huge!” she recalls in her careful, glamorously accented English. “And, after two weeks, I started to be afraid because that never happens to me before. I can sleep 10 hours without waking up. Really!”
So: no sleep. That was the deal. Cotillard, at 31 one of life’s instinctual hard workers, was not about to betray the role by succumbing to the lure of sleeping pills.
“So I just decided to be focused on everything I was doing, especially when I was cutting things to prepare the dinner or climbing the stairs. My nerves were telling me I was not tired, but you have to be tired when you don’t sleep. So all I could do was be careful. It was my reality.”
It continued to be her reality, she says, for four and a half months.
Cotillard’s performance as Piaf has been lauded as the best on screen this year – one of the best, perhaps, in any year – even by critics who didn’t like the film itself. Olivier Dahan, the director, clearly wanted to avoid the leaden plod of the average biopic. Instead, he jumps about Piaf’s life like the little sparrow that was her namesake, alighting alternately on her appallingly deprived childhood, her early youth singing and drinking on the streets of Paris, her feted career, her mid-life degeneration and her premature old age. Nothing, complain the naysayers, gets a chance to develop. Piaf’s daughter, for example, flashes past as a deathbed recollection; she is born and dies within just a few moments.
Cotillard, however, manages to give even the tiniest moment in La Vie en Rose a sense of depth. Piaf was, she says, a very powerful personality; she, in turn, is such a powerful presence on screen that she temporarily eclipses the original.
“The first and only thing Olivier told me,” she says, “was that he wanted to see me in there. Because we all knew I couldn’t disappear.”
Not long after seeing La Vie En Rose, I went into a Parisian music shop with, inevitably, shelves full of Piaf recordings. The cover pictures seemed to show an impostor: someone who looked very like Piaf, but not quite.
Of course, this resemblance was meticulously constructed. Cotillard is beautiful, fresh, radiant: in short, nothing like Piaf. They shaved her hair back to create Piaf’s high forehead. Her eyebrows also were shaved off and redrawn as fake lines, a la Piaf. Make-up for the older Piaf – she died at 47, but was so ravaged by successive addictions that she looked at least 30 years older – took between three and six hours.
Cotillard actually enjoyed those sessions, she says, because her perpetual exhaustion meant she always slept while the make-up artists pleated in the wrinkles. Although, she adds, the fumes from the latex and glue on her face did give her some extraordinary nightmares.
The film’s great trick, however, was to make Cotillard look about a foot shorter. Piaf was tiny – only four foot eight – while Cotillard is tall and gangling; as we talk, she periodically rearranges her long limbs along the couch. So she worked in bare feet while everyone else wore stacked shoes; and they built oversized tables and chairs designed to dwarf her. Her short-waisted dresses gave her the proportions of a much smaller woman.
“And I contracted my body somehow,” she shrugs, “to make small.”
When it came to evoking Piaf as a person, however, she didn’t want to use any tricks at all. When Dahan approached her, all Cotillard knew about the life and times of Piaf were a couple of signature tunes, the fact that she wore black on stage “and had a body language very specific”. She proceeded to watch all the available footage, both of performances and interviews, and to read biographies. But she didn’t do anything towards mastering that specific body language. She didn’t practise Piaf’s speaking voice. As for the songs, she didn’t even consider singing them. The last thing she wanted to do, she says, was try to imitate the real Piaf.
“Because there is no life in imitation,” she says. “You become a mimic and the emotions are gone; to imitate someone, I don’t think you have to understand the inside of the person and I really wanted to do that. Because it is a role also. You have to consider it as a role because it is.”
So she just read, watched, absorbed and had faith that when she started filming – Dahan did not want even to rehearse – a character called Edith Piaf would emerge from within.
“I felt that the combination of all the images in the footage I watched for three months and my journey inside, I would say, would create something on the set. And some really little things during my preparation revealed to me that this was possible.”
One day, for example, a friend came to have lunch with her while she was working with her acting coach. “I was eating and he said, ‘Do you see how you behave?’ And I realised this was not my behaviour. I was not eating my way.”
Later on, momentarily afraid that her approach would not work, she simply read one of Piaf’s songs to herself. “Just to hear if something was happening. And it was.” What was? “I didn’t hear my voice in my head; I started hearing something that was close to what I wanted to do.”
Anyway, she laughs, if you did try to imitate Piaf, she would surely come after you. “She would say, ‘What are you doing?’.”
As the film shows, Piaf was not an easy character: demanding, duplicitous and often drunk, racked by the pain of arthritis and then by addiction to the morphine that relieved it, she was a brilliant tyrant. Cotillard lived with that presence around the clock.
“During the shooting I was never alone. Really! But you just have to be aware that someone is with you. I knew that when I was home, I was not totally me. I knew my humour was not mine. I knew the way I was walking was not mine. But because I knew it, it was not dangerous.”
And if Piaf could behave abominably, Cotillard felt she understood why. Her mother left her with her own mother, a decrepit old woman living in filth, while she walked the streets. Her father, returning from the front after World War I, snatched her away only to dump her with an aunt who ran a brothel while he rejoined his circus.
“When you are abandoned by two parents as a baby – wow, that is something to live with. I think the origin of that tyrannical side of her was her huge fear of being alone. She was so afraid of that. I know because people who knew her told me. And because she was very smart, because she had that power she had, sometimes she used it to keep people around her.”
Cotillard also began performing when was very young; her parents are both actors and she first appeared on stage as a child in one of her father’s plays. She never seriously considered any other career.
Her first big break came when she was cast in Luc Besson’s Taxi series. A star in France, she has worked three times in English – in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, Abel Ferrara’s Mary and opposite Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year (2006).
“He was absolutely not difficult!” she assures me. “He was the nicest guy. Really! Sometimes he was like a big kid, trying to make everybody happy.”
What she has in common with Piaf, however, is her passion for work.
“The passion of sharing emotions and telling stories about two people. More than a passion, a necessity. But, if I’m not able to go on stage because I have a car accident, I won’t be taking morphine.”
That, she feels, was a symptom of Piaf’s fear of failure. Not as a performer: she was quite prepared to go on stage and collapse after one or two songs.
“But she did the show. That was important for her. She was so afraid of something she had to hide by being on stage. That is my point of view about her. But my failure, I want to face it, even if I am afraid.”
There is not much that could frighten her, at least professionally, after La Vie En Rose.
“I discovered many things about my capacities by doing this role,” she says. “When I started work on the project, I thought no one person could do all this. But I knew one thing about myself: that I can work hard. I was afraid but I knew that, with work, I could do something. And I discovered a way to abandon myself that I didn’t know. I discovered that work is not enough. You have to find the place where you abandon everything of yourself. Then you can let something else happen.”