Marion Cotillard – from Piaf to star
from Monsters & Critics
Paris – Marion Cotillard knows she was not the first choice of the producers to incarnate the legendary French chanson singer Edith Piaf in the critically acclaimed biopic La Vie en Rose.
‘(The producer) drew up a list of possible actresses on which my name did not appear because I am not bankable enough,’ the 32-year- old, Paris-born actress said.
In fact, according to media reports, after director Olivier Dahan chose the Paris-born Cotillard over the internationally known star of The Da Vinci Code and the French smash hit Amelie, Audrey Tautou, one production company substantially cut its funding for the movie.
But Dahan said he had wanted Cotillard from the beginning.
‘There is some resemblance between (Cotillard and Piaf),’ he said. ‘But, beyond the resemblance, I wanted an actress without limits, and it seemed to me that Marion had that in her, even if it had never been exploited before.’
In fact, Cotillard’s performance as Piaf, and the subsequent nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress, has overnight turned her from a second-rank actress with an excellent reputation into a star who, it is assumed, will never again be considered not bankable.
The nomination itself has thrust her into such stellar company as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani and Simone Signoret, those rare French female performers nominated for Best Actress Oscars. And if she wins, she will become only the second, after Signoret, to win the award.
While Julie Christie is widely considered the favourite for the prize, Cotillard has already amassed an impressive collection of trophies for her performance as Piaf, including the Golden Globe, the British BAFTA, and the film critics awards of London, Boston, Kansas City and Los Angeles.
The acclaim that has come her way is as much recognition of her talent as of the hard work she put into incarnating Piaf, who died in 1963 at the age of 47 after a life of excess, triumph and tragedy – in other words, a perfect life for the cinema.
But Cotillard knew little about the tiny, charismatic powerhouse lovingly known as La Mome (which means The Kid and is the original, French title of the movie; in some English-language markets the film bears the title The Passionate Life of Edith Piaf).
‘I knew some of her songs,’ Cotillard said. ‘I didn’t know much about her life. But her image made me remember my grandmother, who was the same height – one metre 47 centimetres (4 feet 8 inches) – and that gave me something to go on in the film.’
The most difficult aspect of playing the role, she said, was ‘not going over the top into caricature and not doing so little that it would dilute her personality, and therefore her truth. Every day (of the shooting), I walked a tightrope. But, at the same time, it gave me such pleasure!’
According to one of her coaches for the role, Pascal Luneau, Cotillard was the perfect choice to incarnate a personality as volcanic and charismatic as Piaf.
‘She is a physical actress, of the skin, not cerebral,’ he said. ‘She’s an animal that spits, burns itself. And she has so much cheek that she can sing in the streets.’
About the performance, Luneau said, ‘We decided not to imitate Piaf, not to construct the character. But to let Piaf come to her, to accept her, to be inspired by her.’
For this, he said, it was vital that Cotillard ‘not be afraid, that she not be crushed, that she have a real megalomania.’
At the end, Piaf became such a part of Cotillard that the actress found it difficult to shake her off.
‘At the end of the shooting … I noticed that it would not be that easy to – how can I put it? – to leave Edith Piaf and find myself in my own life,’ she said. ‘I returned home, I took up my normal life again, and then I realized that Piaf was not going away, that I was constantly running into signs that sent me back to her.’
Worse, Cotillard said, in talking to people she found herself reacting the way Piaf would have, even using the same intonations.
‘But little by little I returned to my brain, my body, and I no longer had these uncontrollable outbursts of ‘piaferie,’ she said.
Which is just as well, for she has already been cast in two high- profile international films: Rob Marshall’s Nine, a musical based on Fellini’s 8 1/2, where she will sing alongside Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Sophia Loren, and the 1930s gangster film Public Enemies, directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.