French Oscar nominee talks about her depiction of Edith Piaf

from Marin Independent Journal / by Paul Liberatore

Marion Cotillard, whose transcendent portrayal of the tragic French chanteuse Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress, made a hastily arranged appearance in Marin this week, charming an adoring audience at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.

Casually dressed in black jeans and a sparkly top, the 32-year-old French actress – fresh from winning a Golden Globe – took the stage for an interview and audience questions after a screening of the movie, which is up for three Academy Awards.

Tuesday night was the third time I’ve seen “La Vie en Rose,” and the uncanny way that Cotillard inhabits the character of the “Little Bird,” as Piaf was affectionately known – playing her from age 17 to her death at 47, a casualty of alcohol and morphine – astounded me all over again.

I kept looking at this fresh-faced young woman with shining brown hair tumbling over her shoulders and couldn’t imagine how she could transform herself into the troubledagic Piaf, a character who aged shockingly and prematurely during the course of the film, going from a hard-living Parisian street singer to a successful but tormented version of a French Billie Holiday and, finally, becoming a stooped, drug-addled crone at the end of her too-short life. She had me dabbing my eyes and shaking my head in amazement.

I’m in pretty good company in this. Here’s what Stephen Holden had to say in the New York Times: “Marion Cotillard’s feral portrait of the French singer Edith Piaf as a captive wild animal hurling herself at the bars of her cage is the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another I’ve ever encountered in a film.” The director (but not of this movie) Trevor Nunn called it “one of the greatest performances on film ever.”

Tuesday night’s event, for California Film Institute members, came together at a moment’s notice, arranged last week at Sundance. The Rafael had already shown “La Vie en Rose” for 10 weeks last May and June, including a screening with director Olivier Dahan. And it’s now out on DVD. A show of hands Tuesday night confirmed that just about everyone there had already seen the movie at least once.

So why did Cotillard decide to come to Marin now for one screening? As soon as I got a few moments with her, that’s the first thing I asked. And, wouldn’t you know, there’s a local angle. She loves to have live dialogues with fans (something missing from a movie set), so she decided at the 11th hour to make the Rafael appearance while she was in Marin visiting family.

“My brother married an American,” she explained with a laugh, indicating Quentin Cotillard, who was sitting in the row behind us with his wife, Elaine O’Malley Cotillard, a former Dutch National Ballet dancer who grew up in Marin and is now a San Francisco fashion designer.

“The character on the screen is not the same person you have a glass of wine with,” Elaine said of her sister-in-law. “There are scenes when she’s just astounding.”

Elaine’s mother, Laura O’Malley of San Rafael, told me that even though she thinks of Marion as her own daughter, when she’s on the screen, “I forget it’s her up there.”

I interviewed the director John Sayles this week about his new movie, “Honeydripper,” coming to the Rafael later this month, and in the course of our conversation, Cotillard came up. He asked me if she’s as small as she looks in the movie. She isn’t. She explained that she just wills herself to look and feel that way.

On Tuesday night, the first thing Richard Peterson, director of programming for the Rafael, wanted to know was how she managed to pull this transformation off? Was it makeup? Smoke? Mirrors? A combination of all three.

“I don’t look like her, I hope, although I think she’s beautiful,” she said in her sweetly unsteady English. “I was very scared because I chose a special way to work on that movie. I didn’t want to rehearse. I wanted to build something inside me. My only aim was to understand her. I didn’t want to have her voice, I didn’t want to behave like her or look like her. I just wanted to understand her heart, her soul. That’s what I searched for.”

She invested a lot of time watching movies of Piaf, listening to her speak and sing, she explained, “but without trying to be her.”

Then, 10 days before she was to begin shooting in Prague, she started having second thoughts. She cracked up the crowd when she pretended to anxiously chew on her hand.

“I thought to myself, ‘Maybe you chose the wrong way. Maybe you should do it the classic acting way,'” she said. “It was risky, I know, but I like surprises. And I wanted to have surprises, I didn’t want to control everything.”

Cotillard acknowledged that she’s up against some formidable competition for the Academy Award in fellow nominees: Ellen Page for “Juno”; Cate Blanchett for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”; Laura Linney for “The Savages”; and Julie Christie, the sentimental favorite, for “Away from Her.”

And being a relative unknown in a foreign film works against her, which she well knows.

“You don’t think about an Oscar when you shoot a French movie,” she said with a smile. “This is bigger than my biggest dream.”

Any other year, I’d be rooting for Julie Christie, one of the great actresses of my generation. But Cotillard’s brilliant performance is such a tour de force that she truly deserves to win. And, besides, she has family here, which almost makes her a hometown girl.


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