She’s having a whale of a time

from The Sunday Times (UK) / by Louis Wise

She beguiled her way to an Oscar as Piaf and is one of the world’s hottest actresses. In her intense new film, Marion Cotillard loses her legs. She tells Louis Wise why she prefers beasts to beauties

In her new film, Rust and Bone, Marion Cotillard pushes herself, yet again, to the edge. Cotillard — actress, Oscar-winner, No 1 purveyor of a certain French-patented intensité — plays Stéphanie, a killerwhale trainer who loses her legs in a freak accident. She says she chose the role simply because “it was something I had never done before”. She’s right, and she’s wrong.

She’s right in that Stéphanie is a character with particular demands. Cotillard spends much of her time on the floor, then in a wheelchair, then on crutches, as she learns to adjust to a new life. The actress, of course, didn’t really lose her limbs, but had to act as though they weren’t there, so they could then be erased via top-notch CGI. So, yes, something new.

In other ways, though, not at all new. What we get here is a classic Cotillard turn, one becoming ever more familiar to cinema-goers. Recently, she has filmed with Steven Soderbergh, Michael Mann, Woody Allen and Christopher Nolan (twice), often blending her luminous beauty with something intense, hungry, even unhinged. Stéphanie may seem different from her Hollywood roles (not only does she have no legs, she — gasp! — wears no make-up), but there is still that unsettling mix of perfect face and frayed nerves, building to a fever pitch of emotion.

It all leads back to her huge performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en rose, which bagged her a best-actress Oscar in 2008. We can join the dots, right?

“I don’t know,” she replies, pleasantly, warily.

“It’s always weird to ask yourself that kind of question, to analyse your route or your choice of role. I just do stuff. When I have to answer that kind of question, selfishly I ask myself, do I really need to do this kind of appraisal? And will it really interest people?”

Oh Lord. Actresses. It turns out that if Cotillard is scrupulously polite — jumping up to close the door when the noise outside is too loud, leaping to turn her phone off when it beeps — she is also magnificently unkeen on the interview process. We discuss all kinds of interesting things in our time together, but each question is like the drawing of a wonderful, whitened Tinseltown tooth. At one point, she even bends double in her chair and sighs, apologising: “I dread interviews.” Then she adds, a little bleakly: “I do what I can.”

She’s in the A-lister’s garb: casual-expensive, low-key, apart from some gargantuan turquoise and yellow heels, which she has been perched on by her team for the occasion.

(“I’ve just spent three months on holiday, barefoot,” she sighs.) She’s on the A-lister’s diet, too: hot water, honey and three slices of lemon. She’s stuck here in an anodyne hotel room, doing a full day’s roster of interviews, so you can understand her ambivalence. As atmospheres go, it’s all a bit strict and formulaic — hardly Ovaltine and fluffy slippers.

On the other hand, she is also a fêted millionaire artist, so blow that. And such is the business of being, at 37, the biggest French actress in the world today. Success on her scale is rare: she was the first winner of a best-actress Oscar for a non-English-speaking role since Sophia Loren in 1962, and has worked nonstop since. She is half of one of cinema’s most interesting couples, living with the actor-director Guillaume Canet (Tell No One, Little White Lies). And anticipation for Rust and Bone is great, thanks to the critical success of its director Jacques Audiard’s previous two features, The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Prophet (2009), and a best-film award last weekend at the London Film Festival. As if she somehow has a little inkling of all this, she decides to regroup.

“I’m sure in all the characters I play, there’s always a complexity, a richness of soul, but…” She trails off. Then perks up. “Maybe there’s something vibrant in all of them — it’s a bit vague as a term, but it’s that which comes to my mind.”

“Vibrant” is indeed rather vague, but she has, annoyingly, hit it on the head. Her Piaf, of course, needed that by the bucketful, but it was visible even back in 2003, when she broke out in Tim Burton’s Big Fish, and it is loud and clear in her two Nolan films — Inception and this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises. In both blockbusters, she offers a stylish, subdued take on the femme fatale. (Nolan prized the quality so much, he even adjusted the shoot of the Batman film around the birth of Marcel, her son with Canet, in May last year.) So: vibrant. Perhaps, when you’re in the business of mystery, you’d rather things be undefined; choose not to analyse them?

It’s not that, she insists. “I’m just not capable of it, because it’s not a necessity for me.” And, once her work is done, there’s a greater dread. “I just think — what will I be able to say that won’t piss everyone off?”

What indeed? Maybe she doesn’t want to speak for the directors. Maybe she doesn’t want a repeat of an infamous incident a few years back, when she appeared to back conspiracy theories about 9/11. She has, it seems, successfully brushed that under the red carpet, and she’s not going to let another throwaway comment derail her. “An actor,” she says at one point, as animated as she will get, “is someone who has a lot of strength, but is also fragile. That’s why the job isn’t always easy. To expose oneself, to propose stuff to people — it really messes with you.” This situation included, clearly.

In fairness to Cotillard, she didn’t grow up in a world where she needed to explain herself. She is the daughter of actors, so her profession has always just been there. I ask her when she decided she would like to act. She pauses for a full five seconds. “I don’t know, there was no decision, no ‘shock’. I saw my parents on stage, and what they did fascinated me. It’s like I always wanted to do it, and the desire just got stronger as I got older.” Aged 16, she moved to Paris to make it professionally. She began what she says she still doesn’t think of as “a career” — even if, now, with agents, publicists, journalists, fashion houses and film studios to contend with, this seems like quite a feat. “I just see an actress’s life.”

Rust and Bone is a sombre piece that flirts with melodrama in a macho way — extreme emotions “and harsh situations abound. The film follows Stéphanie and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), an ex-fighter, as their paths slowly entwine. You might have thought she would need to do a lot of preparation, considering not only the role’s demands, but her own: she prefers to spend a long time researching. But no. The suddenness of Stéphanie’s condition meant she didn’t need months in a wheelchair, or on crutches. “If I had to play an amputee or a handicapped person who had been that way for several years, it would have been different. But it’s not something [Stéphanie] knows. So I decided to just jump in with her.”

La vie here is certainly not en rose. Much of the film shows the different types of violence that human beings must endure, and, unsettlingly, reminds us that these experiences aren’t always negative. It all makes for one of the least likely love stories of 2012. Describing it as a French film seems a bit pointless (it’s based on a book of Canadian short stories); it’s entirely an Audiard one. “Stories of love between two people that nothing would have brought together, that can happen anywhere,” Cotillard says. “But to tell it like this — only Jacques can.”

Perhaps it will bring her a new Oscar nomination.

Many actresses go off the boil after the big win, taking time off, making bad decisions or simply sinking under the weight of expectation. And not everyone had a role as huge as Piaf to contend with. Was “the little sparrow” ever an albatross? “People still talk to me about the film,” Cotillard says, “but I don’t feel any lassitude. It was so important to me in my life as an actress, and as a woman. It opened up a lot of things inside me — things that were inhibited. It did have repercussions for me as a person.” I start to imagine something volcanic, but she is quick to put a lid on it. “What she is — her talent, her passion — that inspired me. But her life, her demons, I wouldn’t want to live that.” So, who knows? Maybe she just sings in the kitchen more.

She and Canet — “the French Brangelina” — are notoriously private about their relationship, and she only ever refers to him in a working context. Funnily enough, though, as we are told we have five minutes left together, she decides to wax lyrical about him: a final sprint, with the exit beckoning. She recalls their first job together, 2003’s Love Me If You Dare. “We had a complicity that was very, very strong. We looked at what the other did, and if we didn’t think it was good, we’d say. So, already, I had total trust in him.” She’s excited about their next project, Blood Ties, where he directs her for a second time; Schoenaerts again co-stars. “It’s something completely different. It’s an American film, so it’s not like creating a French film, and what he did hugely impressed me.

“I love working with him,” she says, limbering up, “and I’d love to work with him again.” Surely you’ll be able to, I say, bemused. “Well,” she says sweetly, “you never know.”

Cotillard says she was happy to leave things with Stéphanie open-ended; there’s much about the character that we never discover. “To create something without necessarily showing it,” she says with a smile, “that pleases me.” As she totters off for her next performance, you realise it’s her favourite trick.

Rust and Bone opens on Friday


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