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from Under the Radar Magazine, Web Exclusive (US) / by Chris Tinkham
Breathtaking is a word that usually is not used literally, but go to a screening of La Vie en Rose, writer-director Olivier Dahan’s chronicle of the life of French singer and icon Édith Piaf, and listen to the folks seated near you at the end of the film. You will hear sniffling and slow gasps as actress Marion Cotillard illuminates the film’s final frames. Cotillard’s portrayal—which encompasses Piaf’s days as a young, streetwise urchin, her rise to national celebrity during World War II, and her years of debilitation before succumbing to cancer in 1963, at 47 years old—is a transfixing tour de force that very well might be remembered this upcoming award season. Bear in mind that the recent trend among Oscar voters has been to reward depictions of biographical subjects like Idi Amin, Queen Elizabeth II, Truman Capote, June Carter, Ray Charles and Virginia Woolf.
Cotillard appeared in Tim Burton’s Big Fish in 2003 and opposite Russell Crowe last year in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, but otherwise has starred only in French-language roles, including A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s follow-up to Amélie (2001). Names like Binoche, Béart, Jacob and Ledoyen, among others, were a strong presence on the U.S. art house circuit in the ’90s, but these days there seems to be little room in the spotlight for French actresses not named Audrey Tautou. Cotillard says that she is more interested in telling stories than achieving A-list status in Hollywood or collecting awards. David Lynch, Baz Lurmann and Martin Scorsese are a few of her dream directors, and she doesn’t rule out the possibility of working with them one day. “I had the chance to work with one of my idols, who is Tim Burton,” she says. “So now I know that it is not impossible.”
Prior to the invasion of Hollywood’s summer blockbusters, La Vie en Rose was 2007’s highest-grossing film in France, where it is titled La Môme (translation: The Kid). When asked how she thinks North American audiences will respond to a foreign-language film about a singer who is more revered in France, Cotillard points out that not every French filmgoer is an authority on Piaf. “I think that her talent, her passion, and her emotions speak for themselves,” Cotillard says. “The young people in France, they know Édith Piaf because she’s a national treasure, but they don’t know anything about her life, and some of them don’t even know all her songs. I don’t think there’s a need to be aware of what she was to discover her life.”
As if a 4 1/2-month shoot in transformative makeup were not taxing enough for Cotillard, Dahan’s film underscores the most traumatic moments of Piaf’s life. It’s a demanding role that requires Cotillard to indulge in Piaf’s brazen diva antics while also eliciting sympathy as her character battles insecurity, falls into an obsessive love affair and suffers the loss of loved ones. “This was very intense, but she was a very intense person,” Cotillard says of Piaf. “I love tragedy. Not in my life. But I love to play tragedy. It gives me the opportunity to express so many things. At the same time I feel empty and full of emotion; I feel alive.”
Cotillard injects a larger-than-life vitality into the role of Piaf, who was only 4’8”. Although the 31-year-old actress mimed the singing parts with precision, she fashioned a bold, slightly coarse speaking voice for Piaf and a walk that’s sort of a hunched march. Cotillard captures Piaf’s joie de vivre in vibrant facial expressions and commands the film’s emotionally volatile scenes, but there’s something both magical and eerie about her quieter moments. When an older Piaf knits on a secluded beach while being interviewed by a journalist, there’s a content spirit emanating from beneath Cotillard’s movie makeup. And when an ill, despondent Piaf is first pitched the song “Non, je ne regrette rien,” Cotillard’s response is like watching a character regain a soul.
Under the Radar talked briefly to Cotillard while she was in Los Angeles for the local premiere of La Vie en Rose at the 11th annual City of Lights, City of Angels film festival.
Under the Radar: Physically, your performance is quite distinct, from Piaf’s facial expressions to her posture as a 19-year-old. How did you arrive at a physicality that you felt was right for the role?
Cotillard: I had to learn her technique. I realized that a good lip-synch involved the whole body, the positions. So I asked for a vocal coach, and I asked him to explain her technique. The whole body is involved, and to make it almost perfect, you have to take care of all those details from toes to head. It’s the hardest thing I had to do on the work process. It’s very difficult and, at a point, it’s boring because it’s very technical and you have to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. You have to calculate the length of the silence and you have to be very accurate. But I really wanted it to be realistic. I knew that if I had pleasure, I thought it would work. I don’t try to control everything. When I abandon myself and I don’t have to control anything, and I find the pleasure of acting, I know that somewhere there’s an authenticity. The pleasure I take, that’s how I know that I’m not totally wrong.
UTR: In the press notes, Mr. Dahan mentions a resemblance between you and the younger Édith. Do you see a resemblance?
Cotillard: I can understand about the picture he’s talking about. He saw something in the eyes, and I feel something in her eyes in that picture. There’s something that is not totally observed. It’s hard to see or not see the resemblance, because it’s so focused that it becomes out of focus. I would not have seen a resemblance, but trying to see it, I saw it.
UTR: Did you watch any dailies during the production?
Cotillard: No, I can’t do that. On the set, I can watch what I just did, because sometimes it helps, but I really don’t know how to watch dailies. I did it once. It was two years ago, and it took me 10 days to get my confidence back. It was awful, really. It’s a movie called Fair Play (2006), and it was a scene where the characters are in trouble; there’s a lot of water, and we are screaming. And in the dailies, it was just two people screaming with a very bad [green] screen with no sound of water, and it was terrible for me. I thought I was the worst actress ever. It was the first time I watched dailies, and the last, for sure.
UTR: What were your first impressions of Piaf’s music, and how has your reaction to her songs changed after portraying her in a film?
Cotillard: I discovered Piaf’s songs when I was 19. I heard a song and it made me cry. It was “Les amants d’un jour.” It was so powerful. When I was 19, I fell in love with the chanson réaliste, so I discovered Fréhel, Yvette Guilbert, Mistinguett, and then of course Édith Piaf. And when I discovered “Les amants d’un jour” and “Hymne à l’amour” and “La foule,” I was working on a movie at that time. It helps me to work with music, and several times I used Piaf’s songs to put me in that special state of emotion. It works [laughs] all the time. The funny thing about one song is “Padam Padam.” I knew “Padam,” but I didn’t know it very well. It’s a very, very well-known song in France, and I would say that I didn’t like it so much. I don’t know why. Maybe the repeating music or, I don’t know, but I didn’t know what it was talking about. And when I discovered “Padam” working on [La Vie en Rose], I fell in love with that song, and it’s one of my favorite songs now because I understand it. I think it’s one of her most universal songs because music can remind you of so many things. And “Padam” touched me particularly.