Portrait of the Artist
from Vogue (US) / by Joan Juliet Buck
complete article will be added when the printed magazine is available
With a new film out this month, French siren and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard reveals to Joan Juliet Buck her passion for music and Modigliani—and her true bohemian spirit.
Friday, 11:00 A.M. A private recording studio in the 3ème.
Marion Cotillard’s little black hat grazes the low ceiling of a music studio as she stands, eating a banana, before a full day of recording two songs for Yodelice. Wearing a turquoise bubble T-shirt, a black jacket, black-and-white striped leggings, and heavy motorcycle boots, she’s an elegant clown in the style of Yodelice, a thrilling Expressionist-Surrealist band fronted by composer Maxim Nucci, who performs with eye makeup and a bowler hat, a Cubist tear on his cheek.
“I play the bass guitar, keyboard, and tambourine—I’m their one-woman band and all-purpose maid,” Cotillard explains. She’s taken to appearing with Yodelice on tour, dressed as a man, under “Simone,” the name of her maternal grandmother. “It’s pretty refreshing to be in a situation where the spotlight is on someone else,” she says.
She’s a rare kind of star, only the third actor who’s ever won the Oscar in a foreign-language film, for her tour de force as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose. The “little sparrow” was four feet eight, drug-addled, fragile, a wreck by adulthood and dead at 47. Cotillard at 34 is long-limbed and luminous. She’s got the flawless skin, transparent eyes, and turned-up nose of a child, a generous, connected energy, and a steely capacity for concentration.
Since Piaf, she’s starred (and sung) as Daniel Day-Lewis’s wife, Luisa, in Nine and opposite Johnny Depp in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, as the half-French, half-Menominee Indian Billie Frechette. She’s the only French actress ever to master an American accent, through intense work, though she admits, “I still have problems with A’s and L’s—especially at the end of a word.”
“She can do anything; she’s a true artist,” says Mann. “If it’s someone she connects to, she can summon within herself the deepest urgings, the patterns, the rhythms of that character, that life. Her preparation is ferocious, her commitment and concentration are total, and she goes all the way.”
The lyricist for Yodelice, theater director Marianne Groves, says, “All Marion’s channels are open.”
The word Marion Cotillard uses most often is connection. You can practically see her antennae, and she seems to operate in remarkably clean, open sympathy with her tribe. Her appetite for self-expression is contagious. Friends gather in the studio as the day goes on, piling onto the sofa upstairs like the Marx Brothers into a stateroom. Bastien Duval, artistic director for Yodelice and her PR for fifteen years, comes in from taking pictures with a pinhole camera to announce, “Marion, your banker is here.”
Lunch comes from an organic takeout called Cococook. Marion checks up on her sick cat while planning tomorrow night’s birthday dinner party for her boyfriend, the actor and director Guillaume Canet. Her last track is a raucous rock solo titled “Happy Crowd.”
8:30 P.M. One of the private rooms at Lapérouse, Left Bank of the Seine.
Sidney Toledano, the president of Christian Dior, is giving a small dinner for David Lynch, who just directed a short Web film in Shanghai. The convincing little thriller stars Marion, who is Dior’s “couture muse,” along with a blue Lady Dior handbag. Marion and Guillaume Canet; Lynch and his wife, Emily; Melita Toscan du Plantier, Marrakech Film Festival director; Toledano; and Dior dignitaries eat at a long table strafed by the lights of passing bateaux-mouches.
Canet, slight and bearded, nurses a bandaged thumb that he injured while flying that day on a motorized paraglider. Once a show jumper, he switched to acting because of injuries, directed an excellent thriller, Tell No One, and when not flying is editing his new film, Little White Lies, in which Marion also stars.
Marion has changed into a sparkly white T-shirt dress—from Zadig & Voltaire, not Dior. She’s taken off the striped leggings but kept the motorcycle boots. “Marion,” says David Lynch, “is beautiful, very talented, and thinks good like a rebel.”
Saturday, 10:00 A.M. Organic street market, Batignolles.
No one recognizes Cotillard behind her sunglasses. She’s wearing another little man’s hat, blue striped leggings, and another (white) bubble T-shirt. It’s just the two of us, and now I can feel the shyness behind the warmth. She wants to find choux romanesco “that looks like fractals,” rejects melons from Morocco—”Fragile fruit has to travel by air; too big a carbon footprint.” An eco-warrior who works with Tristan Lecomte and his Alter Eco reforestation project, she’s a locavore who knows her greens. And her fish. Marion and her two brothers, twins Guillaume and Quentin, learned to cook defensively when their mother took up macrobiotics.
She was born in Paris to Jean-Claude Cotillard and Monique (now known as Niseema) Theillaud, actors and teachers who moved to a multicultural tower block and then to the country when Marion was a teenager. Both sets of grandparents lived close to the land, with kitchen gardens; her father’s mother is 101. Three years ago, Marion bought an old farm with white lilacs, fig trees, cherry trees, almond trees, pear trees, and quince trees, dumped the contents of her old apartment there in boxes, and took off to collect her Oscar and make films in other countries.
When she’s in Paris, she lives with Guillaume Canet—who travels as much as she does for his films—but also keeps a room of her own. What she calls “my shack” is a wide, ancient garret that overlooks a park. She’s been back for only two and a half months. Awards are crowded into a corner like dolls in a child’s room. The refrigerator is jammed with her hoard of film for her Polaroid cameras. In the tiny bedroom, 37 small men’s hats are piled on a chair, next to shelves of immaculately folded garments.
She makes me lunch—asparagus, quinoa, zucchini with fresh thyme, white radishes, sliced beets, watercress, crevettes grises—while explaining how to season a cast-iron pan—something to do with potato skins at high heat—and telling me about the time she saved up to buy herself a white truffle. “It cost 500 francs; I brought it home like I was carrying the Grail, cut open an avocado, and added some mozzarella di bufala. I was celebrating being able to buy my first white truffle by eating something that without it would have been—nothing!” She throws a tablecloth on the table, sets down the food, and says, “Welcome to my place. Bon appétit.”
Brought up surrounded by theater, she studied acting at the Orléans Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. “As a teenager, I didn’t want to be me; I wanted to be many different people. Maybe I realized that they all lived inside me and that if I managed to connect with them, they would become aspects of me.”
Her first part, at seventeen, was in the TV series Highlander, directed by Dennis Berry. He was knocked out. “You often feel about an actress that there are limits, but she was ‘Let’s go for it!’—she wants to always explore further,” says Berry. “She didn’t want to protect herself; she took all the risks, with this incredible, active emotional openness.”
She went on to a series of comedies called Taxi (I, II, and III) but wanted more depth: “The directors I dreamed of were Coppola, Scorsese, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Spielberg because of E.T. I wasn’t considered an actress. I didn’t want to get bitter while waiting for something to happen, so when I was 27, I told my agent I was stopping and going to work for Greenpeace. He said, ‘Please just have this one meeting.’ It was with Tim Burton, for Big Fish, and I got the part.” In her next American movie, A Good Year, she played Russell Crowe’s abrasive Provençal love interest.
Then she got to go far deeper. Olivier Dahan wrote a script for her about Edith Piaf.
“There was one little problem: The finance people didn’t want me.” But Dahan was determined. She gave her all to Piaf: “I learned how to make the space inside me for her to come in.” Along with hard work and intense research, there was mystical surrender and some mimicry—her brothers saw that she had copied their great-uncle’s walk for Piaf’s later years.
When the film was over, she couldn’t shake Piaf. Her hairline and her eyebrows were still shaved. She fled with Canet to Peru and the Amazon; she went to Bora Bora with her best friend, Geraldine. “It was there that I found myself articulating why Piaf was still living inside me. She had been abandoned as a child; her greatest fear was to be alone. Now I didn’t want to abandon her. I finally was able to say, ‘She’s been dead for 40 years; it’s OK.’ ”
She goes into every character as deeply: lived on the Menominee reservation for Billie Frechette, spent four months learning to dance for Luisa in Nine. Her inspirations for the cuckolded director’s wife included Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, and Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the shooting of Apocalypse Now. Photos of Audrey Hepburn gave her “the hairdo with the big personality, the thick bangs and the ponytail. You paint your character with colors you have taken from everywhere.”
I ask about Inception, the Christopher Nolan film she stars in with Leonardo DiCaprio, due out this month but surrounded with secrecy. Marion won’t even describe the character she plays; she changes the subject to her hero, Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner whose work is the reforestation of Africa. In a later phone call, Nolan tells me this much: “The most magical thing about who Marion plays is just to sit there and watch the mystery of the character unfold.”
4:00 P.M. The Pompidou museum.
Marion likes thick impastos, rough, complex surfaces, early Dubuffet, Giacometti. Her knowledge of painting is layered with emotion. She was in love with Modigliani. “I spent half my time here, and the rest on his grave at the Père Lachaise,” she says in front of one of his portraits of his wife, Jeanne. Her obsession led her to do some strange things. “In 1996, when the big Crédit Lyonnais bank was burning on the TV news, I saw a man in a green jacket panicking because he had a Modigliani in a vault. I jumped on the Métro to find him, so he could show me the Modigliani if it survived. I asked all the firemen if they’d seen the man in a green jacket. They thought I was nuts.”
6:00 P.M. Merci, Boulevard Beaumarchais.
Somewhat oblivious to the fact that she is giving the party for 60 in two hours, Cotillard takes me to Merci, a concept store. All profits from the clothes, furniture, and books it sells go to a charity for children and young women in Madagascar. “People love to come here because it’s useful,” she says. Down in the café, over chocolate cake and coffee, she admits she misses Los Angeles, where she’s lived in a series of rented houses. Her next film is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where the president’s wife, Carla Bruni, will be putting in a cameo. The glasses are off; girls and women keep streaming toward Marion for autographs and pictures; she says yes to all of them. This is a star who writes a thank-you letter for every bouquet she receives.
Sunday, 3:00 A.M. A building near the Madeleine.
Sixty people are dancing and singing in an apartment/party space that Marion found after rejecting a better-known venue because “last time I gave a party there, they told us we could stay till 3:00 A.M., but they threw us out at one-thirty.” It’s a fully furnished hedge-fund lair given over to a joyous bohemian jamboree.
There’s a loud karaoke band in the middle of the sleek, white, double-height living room: two guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer. Matthieu Chedid, a famous French composer and singer who goes by the name M and who holds happenings called “Labo M” (or La Bohème), is playing with them. Guillaume Canet’s parents and Marion’s mother, a delicate woman with long, perfectly cut gray hair, are dancing with assorted music types. In the dining room, tiny cornets of little multicolored mousses are lined up next to bottles of champagne.
Marion is in black tights, suede wedges, yet another white T-shirt dress, and yet another little hat. She organizes the transfer of Canet’s presents from a bedroom to a low sofa in the main room.
And then she goes back to the center of the room, grabs the mike, and belts out a song while Canet happily and slowly opens each of his presents. Next Saturday night, the Oscar winner that every director wants to work with will be singing backup in Brussels as the anonymous Simone, and she’s practicing.