Passion plays

from South China Morning Post / by Kavita Daswani

Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard stretches herself in a quirky new sci-fi thriller, writes Kavita Daswani

Nobody could accuse Marion Cotillard of seeking out the easy, predictable roles. Since her star-making and Oscar-winning turn as the late, legendary French singer Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, she has opted for parts that trigger some instinct in her, that plug into her appreciation for diversity: she was the paramour of John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) in Public Enemies and the enigmatic, glamorous songstress wife of an adulterous film director in Nine.

“I’m fortunate enough to always have a mix of offers that are totally different from each other and from what I’ve done before,” she says. “My heart helps me decide. It bounces, and then it sends a message to my brain that says, ‘obsession, obsession, obsession, obsession’. I become obsessed with the story, and that’s when I know I have to go there.”

The latest pull came from Inception by Christopher Nolan – he of The Dark Knight fame – and a complex, dense and mind-bending tale about stolen dreams set against a backdrop of international intrigue.

“I wanted to be part of the project right away because it was so original,” Cotillard, 34, says of her first reaction to the script. “You don’t read this kind of a story often. It’s rare to have such an original and unique project.”

Nolan reportedly worked on the script for almost a decade, having to turn his attention away to make the blockbuster Batman movies. He based the story on a few hypothetical questions: what would happen if you could enter someone else’s dreams? If there was a way to access someone’s unconscious mind – say, while they were sleeping – what could that be used for?

Inception is no run-of-the-mill sci-fi film, however. In Nolan’s hands, and with a cast that also includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy, the film is a visual feast, with astonishing special effects and action sequences. True to Nolan’s imprint, the movie also plumbs philosophical depths.

Cotillard plays Mallorie “Mal” Cobb, the wife of Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), an independent undercover operative who knows how to access people’s minds while they sleep, but who has hidden traumas of his own. The movie, shot on a reported budget of US$170 million, was filmed across three continents, starting in Tokyo and taking in Tangiers, Los Angeles, Paris, London and Canada.

“I think Christopher Nolan is one of the most interesting and talented directors of our time,” Cotillard says. “The fact that he writes his own material makes him so connected to his story. It comes out of his mind, brain and imagination. You really do enter his world.”

Cotillard has quintessential movie-star good looks – dark brown hair, today styled in soft ringlets, startling blue eyes, fine features against porcelain skin. She channels an Audrey Hepburn-like elegance, arriving in Beverly Hills one afternoon in a sailor-inspired blackand-white top, harem-style pants and ultra-high heels that, by the end of the afternoon, look like they have caused a fair bit of discomfort.

Although she is something of a newly minted style and celebrity icon in her native France, she is left largely alone by the paparazzi there because of French privacy laws. In the US, however, she is increasingly recognised when out and about, but takes it all in stride.

She is essentially an actor’s actor; her father is an actor, playwright and director, and her mother an actress and drama teacher. She studied drama in Orleans, where she was raised, making her acting debut as a young girl in one of her father’s plays. Her first major role was in Luc Besson’s Taxi in 1998. After that, she got roles in mainstream US studio movies such as the fantasy drama Big Fish, and the romantic comedy Good Year with Russell Crowe.

Even though she began working in the field at a young age, she says she had a “very normal childhood”.

“I think you really have to live the life of a child to be able to bring something that’s connected to people to your work,” she says.
With most of the characters she has played, Cotillard says she has always been able to draw on other people, whether known to her or not.

“When I start working on a character, I enter a process of understanding someone and creating this person. I just open my mind and imagination and everything comes in an organic way. And usually, very quickly, there are some inspirations based on human beings, someone I know, or maybe another actor, artist, politician.”

In the case of Mal, however, she said “nobody came”. “And I thought, maybe my inspiration will start with emptiness, like a blank page. I was really inspired by Chris and Leo. Chris’ personality is very mysterious and filled with this fascinating new world that he offers to people. And Leo’s character was very inspiring because of the relationship he has with Mal.”

The experience, she says, will remain enduringly memorable.

“It was very rich because you enter a world you don’t entirely understand, but that’s the whole point. You have to be lost, and someone will take your hand and take you somewhere unknown, somewhere you will really live and experience. I think, as an actor, that’s what happened to me. When I saw the movie, I had an experience as if I was not part of the project. And that doesn’t happen often.”

There was also a small but highly significant indicator that, perhaps, Cotillard was made for the role. In the film, the operatives are awoken by a song that is a trigger, something that tells them they are back in the real world and not in some dreamscape. And the musical number is no less than Piaf’s La Vie en Rose [edit: it is actually Je ne regrette rien]. Cotillard says Nolan wrote that detail into the film well before she was considered for the role.

“He gave me the script he had written, and the song was already there. It was kind of funny to see that. I thought, ‘Wow’. You know, connections.”

Cotillard was talking about the movie while between projects, but only briefly. Since her stunning 2008 best actress win, she’s been inundated with offers, always going for the material she instantly resonates with. Since finishing Public Enemies, she’s worked on both French and American productions. Before filming Inception, she completed production on a French film, Little White Lies, which opens in France in October and is a drama-comedy about an annual beach gathering for a group of friends that one year goes somewhat awry.

This month, she started filming Midnight in Paris, a romantic comedy written and directed by Woody Allen about a family travelling to the French capital; her co-stars include Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates and, in something of a casting coup, France’s first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. Then, in September, she’s off to work on Contagion, a Steven Soderberghhelmed action thriller about a deadly virus.

“I’ve always wanted to be an actress and to work with great directors, and that is what has happened to me,” she says. “I’m on the road most of the time, but I still consider France my home. My base will always be my country, but I love being here, I love being in New York and I loved being in Chicago [where Nine [edit: it was actually Public Enemies] was shot]. I know I could live here.”


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