on 1 Jan, 1970
from The Guardian (UK) / by David Thomson
When Marion Cotillard played Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose (2007), she amazed most of us with the intensity of her impersonation and physical commitment to Piaf’s desperate fragility. She didn’t actually sing the songs, but who noticed? The response to Cotillard was automatic and heartfelt: she won a Bafta, a César, a Golden Globe and the Oscar – the first time that prize had gone to a player in a French film. Somehow, she became confused with Piaf. It was taken for granted that Cotillard was herself a powerhouse and an international star in the making. But it has all turned out very differently, to such an extent that one marvels all the more at the ferocious resources she laid hold of for Piaf.
For what has been revealed in her films since 2007 is a proclivity for pain, suffering, patience and a curiously passive intensity. It’s not that I’m unappreciative. For some of us, a little Piaf goes a long way. I found Cotillard far more interesting as Mal, the spirit of the dead wife in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. She seemed to grasp the submerged, latent or imaginary level of being Nolan was seeking. She was reproachful, unyielding, baleful, slightly sinister – as well as attractive and endearing. She made a great deal of what was not much more than a sketch in the script: the ghost of a suicide wife who keeps trying to draw Leonardo DiCaprio closer towards his own demise. I admit that I like Inception more than many people, and in part that’s because of the way Cotillard provided an emotional basis for what could have been a very technical exercise. But she has eyes – we know now – that seem always on the point of weeping. Piaf was famous for regretting nothing, but Marion Cotillard has a gaze that suggests nearly everything she can think of is tinged with grief or regret.
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) was not a good film, but see what Cotillard made out of Dillinger’s lover, Billie Frechette. Long before Johnny Depp’s Dillinger seems to realise where he’s headed, Billie has guessed he is a short-lived flame, and her moist eyes light up with threatened appreciation for every perilous moment they have together. When the gangster is actually killed, she is so devastated that we suddenly realise how flimsy or cold-blooded the rest of the film has been. Similarly, in Rob Marshall’s Nine (2009), the natural role for Cotillard was as the betrayed wife to Daniel Day-Lewis’s womaniser, always on the brink of leaving him, victimised by her own vulnerability to love, and heartbroken when she hears her husband repeat words of romance he once used on her to another woman.
So in the English-language films made since her Oscar, Cotillard has stayed subdued, poignant and in support. There’s been no hint of her commanding a film, as she did with La Vie en Rose. That was very much the pattern she had established before playing Piaf: she was lively and fun as Russell Crowe’s French girlfriend in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year (2006); she was a supporting player in Abel Ferrara’s Mary (2005); and just a small part in Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003). Even in one of her French films, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, she was playing along in what was Audrey Tautou’s vehicle.
She is 35 now, and has forthcoming roles in American films: she plays a “muse”, apparently, in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which will open the Cannes festival in May, and she will be a doctor in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. In neither project does she seem to have a dominant part. Of course, she is French, with a French career and the actor Guillaume Canet as her companion. She and Canet are expecting a child this spring, and Cotillard has been featured in a fashion ad campaign. It remains to be seen what else she wants, and how important it is to her to insist on something as potent, self-assertive and irresistible as La Vie en Rose.