French Fancy

from Total Film (UK) / by Jonathan Crocker

The star of this month’s Little White Lies is France’s most alluring export, hopscotching between mindblowing Hollywood blockbusters and Oscar-winning Euro dramas. How did Marion Cotillard get this far without learning to do an American accent?

Fish. Marion Cotillard is thinking about fish. “This is insane,” she beams, poured over an armchair in a Paris hotel suite. “Le Duck is a masterpiece of a fish restaurant. Favourite place to eat, definitely. All the people I took there, they are still talking about it.” Really? “Reeeeaally. It’s so good, it’s insane.” So there you have it. If you’re in Paris and you like seafood, head to Le Duc. If you’re lucky, you might grab a table next to the French dish that Hollywood can’t get enough of.

Makes sense, really. It was a fish that first hooked Cotillard into Hollywood. A Big Fish. Before she popped up in Tim Burton’s fairytale fantasy as Billy Crudup’s wife, few could have imagined that they were watching the next big thing in French cinema. Indeed, Cotillard herself had been losing her faith with acting. She was a well-known actress in France, but starring in TV shows like the Highlander spin-off series and films like Luc Besson’s Taxi trilogy weren’t nourishing her.

“My favourite movies as a kid were almost all American,” says Cotillard. “Even though I had no fantasy of going to Hollywood, my imagination was fed by American cinema.” As a child growing up in an arty, noisy family home outside Paris, Cotillard watched Singin’ In The Rain again and again – rewinding the VHS to learn the songs and dances off by heart. Her idols were Chaplin, Garbo and Judy Garland rather than Bardot, Deneuve or Jeanne Moreau.

But like those irrestistible Gallic exports, Cotillard has pulled the rare trick of seducing Hollywood and Europe at the same time. After going on the lam with Johnny Depp (Public Enemies), razzle-dazzing with Daniel Day-Lewis (Nine) and haunting Leonardo DiCaprio’s dreams (Inception), she’s now returned to her homeland for tragi-comic drama Little White Lies, written and directed by her boyfriend Guillaume Canet.

Almost without anyone noticing, she and Canet – hotshot actor-turned-director of crossover hit thriller Tell No One, former husband of Diane Kruger – have formed a Euro-cool power couple to match Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel. The press in her home country dub them the French Brangelina. But Little White Lies is different dimension to Hollywood fantasies: a two-hour talk-a-thon in which a group of thirtysomething friends go on holiday to laugh, cry, argue, drink wine and be French. A change from the revolving corridors and origami cityscapes of Inception.

“But it was one of my best experiences, I have to say,” she explains. “I had never worked with Guillaume before like this. But the relationship we had was…” She drifts off, thinking. “It might have something to do with the fact he is an actor so he knows how it works from the inside. And it brings something more. Because I’ve worked with directors who didn’t understand how an actor functions, how hard it is sometimes.”

Terrifyingly beautiful on screen, the 34-year-old is more understated in the flesh. Talking in gently broken English – and often in vague statements – Cotillard carries herself with thoughtful glamour. She takes her time saying things, stretching out her words and sentences, almost as if translating them in her head. “You’re otherworldly,” Nicole Kidman said to her, while shooting Nine. “It seems like you come from another planet, in the most beautiful way.”

Ironically, Cotillard had to cover up her beauty and amp up her Frenchness to blaze a path to Hollywood. After making zero impact with Russel Crowe in Ridley Scott’s forgettable A Good Year, it was a French film and a Fench heroine that arrived out of nowhere to blast her to superstar status. Cotillard’s transformation into iconic chanteuse Édith Piaf in biopic La Vie En Rose was nothing short of stunning.

She curved her spine to appear a foot shorter than her 5ft 6ins, crunched her voice into a phlegmy crackle, shaved her hairline and eyebrows and rmodelled her face with prostheses and experimental make-up. But the real metamorphosis was within: Cotillard became Piaf, from teenage urchin raised in a brothel to cancer-riddled, morphine-addled 47-year-old. “That’s what I try to do,” she nods. “To be a 100 per cent this person. Someone who suffers will have very strong emotions. And when you’re one person with the character, you will get those emotions, because you drown yourself in those emotions.”

Voila. Whatever awards the film world had, it gave them to Cotillard. Bafta, Golden Globe, César and an Oscar for Best Actress. She’s only the second French actress to win (after Simone Signoret) and the first to win it speaking French. Tellingly, her speech paid tribute to Hollywood. “Thank you life, thank you love!” she cried. “It’s true there are some angels in this city…”

Strangely, it’s not the movie that Cotillard believes is the most important of her career. “That’s A Very Long Engagement,” she says, immediately. Hitting cinema’s a year after she met Canet playing his wild-child girlfriend in Love In Me If You Dare, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s curio saw her knock Audrey Tautou off the screen with a performance as a murderous prostitue. It won her another César. “Even though it was eight minutes [of screen time], it changed a lot of things in my career,” she says. “It brought me a lot of offers. The role touched people. But the Oscar changed everything too. I would have never done American movies.” The phone started ringing? “It rang differently!” she laughs.

Sure enough, Hollywood wasn’t offering Cotillard the standard rom-coms that most actresses are forced to do. These were dark female roles she could really sink her teeth into. But as Johnny Depp’s gangster-moll Billie Frechette in Michael Mann’s hi-def crime opus Public Enemies, Cotillard had one major problem to hurdle. Frechette didn’t have a French accent.

She shudders at the memory. “To do an accent that’s not your first language is reeeeeally hard,” she grimaces. “It’s one of the hardest things I had to do on Public Enemies. Reeeeeally.” Cotillard worked with a dialogue coach every day for four months to crack the Louisiana Bayou-Cajun accent. During the three-month shoot, she spoke only in English, even to her family and friends. She’s still not happy with the result. “It was so frustrating. Because I tried. I worked very, very hard, knowing that it was almost impossible. I’m very lucky to have offer from directors who can deal with my French accent.”

And you get the feeling that her French hasn’t been much of an obstacle. Did Leo DiCaprio’s wife in Inception just happen to be Parisian? Or are Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers finding excuses to work with one of the world cinema’s most alluring talents? Either way, cotillard’s je ne sais quois is exactly what makes her such an electrifying presence in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster. Whatever your first language, Inception must have been confusing on the page. “Yeah… Well it took time,” she says. “The first time we met we talked about dreams, he gave me the script and I was fascinated. I had to read it several times. Sometimes on the set I didn’t know if things would work. And then, suddenly, it’s alive on the screen. I was blown away by it.” For Cotillard, the dream had come true. “I feel so lucky to have a very special relationship with American cinema,” she says. “That is a dream I didn’t dare to have. I’m so welcomed in this country of cinema. It’s still surprising to me.” Moving effortlessly between Hollywood and Europe, she has the best of both worlds. After all, her American movies with Mann and Nolan have essentially been arthouse experiments with blockbuster budgets. “Even on a big scale movie like Inception, all the actors were very close to Chris,” she agrees. “We knew that something special was happening. And then Woody Allen is totally different [Cotillard stars in Woody’s new romantic comedy Midnight in Paris, scheduled to open Cannes 2011].” She sighs. “All the people you meet in your career, you learn from them.” Like Nine‘s Daniel Day-Lewis? “Watching Daniel working is the best lesson you could have. You learn… involvement,” she asserts. “The way he’s involved. His commitment is beyond.”

Interestingly, despite her own immersive commitment to roles, Cotillard refuses to mine private experiences to conjure emotion. “Oh no, no, no, I couldn’t do that,” she says, shaking her head vigorously. “Because if I have to think about something that hurt me to the point of being in that state, it belongs to me. You can’t just run away from this emotion. When the scene has finished, it is still there. It would be dangerous.”

When she was alongside Daniel Day-Lewis, Penélope Cruz and Nicole Kidman in Nine, her status as ambasador of French cinema seemed complete. But with Hollywood’s biggest directors queuing up to cast her, Cotillard has announced she’s now expecting her first child. We can expect to see less of her for a while but roles in Woody’s 34th feature and in Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Contagion should keep fans sated.

Midnight in Paris will be so different from Contagion” she says. “With Contagion, you can expect scary things about a virus.” Anything else she can tell us? “Not really…” Not even if Total Film buys you a chocolat chaud and a croissant at Le Duc? She rolls her eyes. “I’m not that French…”

Little White Lies opens on 15 April


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