on 1 Jan, 1970
from Georgia Straight (Canada) / by Melora Koepke
Toronto—Although Marion Cotillard’s most famous role required much preparation and an on-screen transformation into a renowned historical character, it turns out she also lights up Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone in a part that’s all her own.
Cotillard, daughter of an acting family from suburban Paris, vaulted to A-list celebrity status when she won an Oscar for her incarnation of Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose, which required months of preparation. For that role, she had to virtually disappear into the visage and mannerisms of France’s most famous chanteuse, whose physicality was well known to millions.
Since achieving international screen stardom, she has made several American movies—including two, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, with Christopher Nolan, as well as Midnight in Paris with Woody Allen—and a few French ones, including the upcoming Blood Ties with her husband, writer-director Guillaume Canet.
But she says she has never approached a role—one that she had to invent within herself, and somewhat on the fly—as instinctually as that of Stephanie in Rust and Bone. The film was a festival favourite in Cannes and Toronto and will play next week as part of VIFF’s Spotlight on France, along with films by Mathieu Kassovitz, Olivier Assayas, and Raymond Depardon, as well as documentaries about a famous French restaurant and Serge Gainsbourg.
Audiard (A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) is one of France’s most acclaimed auteurs, yet Cotillard, busy Hollywoodienne and the mother of a young son, had to juggle and squeeze in order to fit the film into her schedule. Though she did, in the end, make the time to shoot it—she cites the chance to work with Audiard as an unmissable opportunity—she had little rehearsal and prep time. Yet as the female half of Audiard’s most uncommon love story, she delivers perhaps the most visceral performance of her career.
“I usually love the [time spent] preparing a movie, but I didn’t have much time to prepare this. Really, I wasn’t even supposed to do this movie,” Cotillard told the Georgia Straight at the Toronto International Film Festival recently. “The process of going to encounter a new person, to try to understand this person, is very important to me. I didn’t have as much time as I usually take, and at the same time, Stephanie was the most mysterious character I had ever read.”
Stephanie is a heroine in more than just the usual ways. She’s a marine biologist who trains orcas at Marineland on the Côte D’Azur. There, she meets rough, desperate Ali (rising star Matthias Schoenaerts), a single father and bare-knuckle fighter, when she is out alone at a nightclub where he’s working the door. After a dustup in the club, he drives her home to her unappreciative boyfriend. After an unlikely and terrible accident in the whale pool from which Stephanie wakes up a double amputee, she calls Ali. He becomes the only person who doesn’t treat her as an invalid.
Like Audiard’s A Prophet, considered one of the most remarkable films to come out of French cinema in years, Rust and Bone is shot with brutal artistry. It’s hardly a feel-good romance, though the characters do achieve a raw, hard-won optimism through their connection with each other. Although the director’s focus is on his fierce respect for the story’s characters, there’s also harsh commentary about the brutal inequalities in modern European society. Rust and Bone is something that Cotillard thinks French cinema “needs more of”.
She says that to play Stephanie, she was forced to look inside herself, and it wasn’t an easy process.
“Usually, when I read a part and I want to do it, immediately there’s a connection and I know who this [character] is,” she says. “With [Stephanie], at the end of reading the script, I had no idea who she was. And I had to tell Jacques, even though I was a little scared… but I was surprised, because then he told me: ‘Neither do I; we will have to go on the road and find her!’ So for this movie, we had less time to do the work and more work to do along the way. But it was kind of exciting, because it was something I had never experienced before.”
It seems that in France, as in Hollywood, good roles for women in their 30s are hard to come by. Audiard created some signature high-stakes scenarios, including representations of sex and violence, for Stephanie and Ali—and these presented alluring challenges for Cotillard.
“It’s rare to find a very good story and a very good role, there’s no question,” Cotillard says. “When I read something and I become obsessed right away, I need to do the film. First, I met Jacques, and then I totally fell in love with the story and the character. I was so moved. It got right into my blood… Ali sees Stephanie as a human being, when before she was an empty shell. He doesn’t look at her right away as a woman—she has to teach him that!—but she feels alive because he thinks she is.”
Cotillard, meanwhile, is always caught up in a kind of love story, the kind that occurs between actors and the people who help them bring their best to the screen.
“The first person I work for is the director; if I have no director on-set, I would be so bad,” she says. “I love having different experiences inside French cinema or American cinema. [The blockbusters] are a lot of fun: it’s huge and crazy and I have had the chance to work on very big movies with a very special director, Chris Nolan, who has the spirit of an independent. I think it might be different to work on a real ‘studio movie’. I was offered these kinds of movies several times, but I will never regret not being in these movies because, first of all, I don’t like them; I have seen several of the movies I turned down, afterwards, and I was, like, yeah, it’s obvious I could not fit in there because there was no director.”