on 1 Jan, 1970
from Little White Lies (UK) / by Zara Miller
Here’s a riddle: you’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t be sure. But it doesn’t matter. How can it not matter to you where this train will take you? This riddle, uttered by Marion Cotillard in Inception, epitomises the joie de vivre attitude the actress has towards her own career. “I’m not trying to control things because I don’t feel I have to,” she says in caramel French, “things are happening, beautiful things are happening, and I just live what’s happening and try to live it entirely.”
In 2007, La Vie en Rose director Olivier Dahan handed Cotillard the ticket that would ferry her from France to global recognition; casting her in the role of tragic heroine and national icon Edith Piaf. At the cost of losing distribution funds on an actress who, Dahan was told, would not be ‘bankable enough for Hollywood’, the director chose his protagonist before they had even met; detecting a glint of Piaf in Cotillard’s beguiling blue eyes. This seed of similarity erupted on screen into a glimmering replication and Oscar-winning performance. Bringing back to life the pop-eyed singer with the posture of a broken puppet and an alarming vibrato that once shook a war-torn nation, Cotillard has become a cultural touchstone for the twenty-first-century’s memory of the chanteuse who regretted nothing.
“I think actors are tunnels,” Cotillard muses, “and I like to be a link, in a way, between the story and the people – something that can take you from one point to another. It goes through you, you have a story, you have a character, and through you, you reach people.”
Hollywood was quick to reach back, placing their newfound belle on a pedestal and offering blockbuster roles as if they were bonbons. To add to the lustre, she was made the new face of Dior. After playing many supporting roles in he early career – as the cherry-cheeked girlfriend to both on-screen boyfriends as well as off-screen partner, director Guillaume Canet – it was with Piaf that Cotillard could finally take centre stage.
Following in the tracks of Bardot, Binoche and Tatou, Cotillard soon became one of the handful of French actresses to cross the sea and charm the world. But while she could readily evoke that butter-wouldn’t-melt look that her fellow countrywomen had perfected, it soon became clear that Cotillard also had something unique – more reminiscent, perhaps, of American actresses Sissy Spacek or Mia Farrow. Cotillard’s eyes harbour a mysterious kind of beauty; a kind that scares as it stares. When, in 2010, she played the unblinking Medusa trapped in her husband’s mental basement in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it was this she used to haunt both dream world and audience alike.
From skipping girlfriend to scorned wife, Cotillard’s roles have mirrored her maturing process as an actress. Starring alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood she has, nonetheless, managed to retain an umbilical connection to France. For her new role in Canet’s Little White Lies, Cotillard has rubbed the stars from her eyes, appearing with an all-French ensemble. Marion plays Marie; the name alone being an indication of the transformation expected.
But it is precisely this lack of fantasy that the actress found bewildering at times. “It was very different because for a few years I had travelled: from the ’20s to the ’60s with Piaf; and then to the ’40s with Public Enemies, then to the ’60s with Nine; Inception was… out of time,” Cotillard explains. “Then, suddenly, I can wear jeans, I can talk my own language. So it’s at the same time relaxing and really scary. Sometimes I had to take me back in. I didn’t have to create a world for Marie because I know this world, I live in this world. So sometimes I was kind of lost because I didn’t know exactly how to create my structure. This was someone I could have a beer with,” she laughs.
Witnessing herself in a world that she couldn’t imagine, but one that was uncannily her own, had a recoiling effect, she admits. “When I saw the film for the first time it was horrible,” she blushes, “because I could see things of myself that I can’t usually see, but something that I could feel was mine: a little expression; a way to move my head; and it was horrible! It was horrible!” This is the face of Dior, ladies and gentlemen, watching herself through slitted fingers and making sick gestures.
The camera, by nature, is unforgiving. But for an actress whose beauty and age is continuously being manipulated, the impression she acquires of herself must forever be intertwined between screen selves. So, in 2009 when Cotillard once again played ‘the wife’ in star-spangled musical Nine, what must it have felt like being cast alongside an actress in whose tracks she seemed to be following? Sophia Loren plays Cotillard’s mother-in-law and, being the first actress to win an Academy Award for a non-English speaking performance in 1962, the fact that Cotillard became the second in 2007 must have called for some comparisons to be made. When asked what she hoped to achieve by the time she reaches Loren’s age, Cotillard replies, with no hesitation, “simplicity.” A simplicity, perhaps, that can only be detected when the camera turns a blind eye; something that lies silent beneath the cabaret and the Botox. “Oh, and to be able to cook pasta like she does,” Cotillard adds.
How can it not matter where this train will take you? Inception offers an answer to this riddle: because you’ll be together. Having recently announced her pregnancy with Canet, it is possible that this is what’s kept Cotillard so grounded, too. Then again, with three films due for release this year, it would seem the actress is still a million miles away from simply cooking pasta for three.