La belle dame avec merci

from The Irish Times / by Tara Brady

DRESSED DOWN in jeans and a patterned black T-shirt, Marion Cotillard has arrived in London on the back of a three-month break with her partner Guillaume Canet and the couple’s 18-month-old son, Marcel. She’s not giving up on her holiday just yet; she’s barefoot as we shake hands: “I have been for months,” she notes gleefully.

Her lengthy family sojourn means she missed out on the hoopla surrounding Christopher Nolan’s billion-dollar-grossing The Dark Knight Rises. The British director delayed the production to accommodate Cotillard’s pregnancy but she has yet to be recognised on the street, she says, for her work on the film.

Disappearing has long been part of Cotillard’s repertoire. We’re frequently told she and actor-director Canet make up the French Brangelina, yet the couple reputedly live very quietly in the Parisian suburbs. Where other Atlantic-crossing Gallic talents have excelled in glamorous or glacial exoticism, Cotillard’s work is largely invisible. Her downright freaky transformation into Édith Piaf for La Vie en Rose was seamless enough to secure 2008’s César, Bafta and Academy Award in the Best Actress category. It was the first non-Anglophone performance to win an Oscar since Sophia Loren’s 1962 turn in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women.

“I couldn’t leave the character on La Vie en Rose,” recalls Cotillard. “It was weird because I used to kind of judge actors who would stay in character on set or who would have a hard time leaving the character behind when the movie was done. I had this very dumb idea that ‘Okay, it’s a big part of your life but its your job. Go home and go back to yourself.’ It turns out it’s not that easy. In the process I was in character almost all the time. Even when I went home, there was something that was not entirely me.”

The lack of vanity that defined Cotillard’s Piaf is pivotal to Rust and Bone, director Jacques Audiard’s much-decorated follow-up to A Prophet. Cotillard, a Greenpeace activist, says she has “dreamed of working with Audiard” for years but was less keen on the idea of whale wrangling.

“I love animals,” she says. “The funny thing is I first heard about Jacques’s project at a table with a bunch of other actors and agents – I didn’t even know there was a role for a woman then – and I heard the words ‘Orca trainer’ and I thought, Oh my God. I would love to work with Jacques; I would die to work with Jacques. But I will never, ever, ever work at Marine Land. I cannot stand those places.”

She smiles and shakes her head. “And somewhere between that moment and reading the script I forgot totally about that feeling. I remember [that on] the first day of shooting in Marine Land I looked around and thought, Look where you are.”

What happened to change her mind?

“She did. Stéphanie. My character. I totally fell in love with her. It is always like that for me. I read. I get obsessed. If I have not been offered the part, I will do everything to get it. She moved me. A lot. Sometimes, even on set, I was moved by what happened to her. And sometimes I was very happy because of things that happened to her. It’s hard to explain. It’s weird.”

Rust and Bone, by extension, turns out to be one of the year’s oddest prospects. On paper, Audiard and screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s liberal adaptation of a short-story collection by Canadian writer Craig Davidson reads like a strange brew of hoary masculine cliches and telenovela plotting: the brute redeemed by love, sex addiction, MMA prizefighting, corporate espionage, a whale-related accident, poor parenting and amputee sex. In execution, it’s a gorgeous, compelling series of delicately poised juxtapositions. The setting takes in the scuzzier locales of the Riviera but the sea has never shimmered so beautifully; the lead performances from Cotillard and Belgian costar Matthias Schoenaerts are both carnal and tender; their characters are repellant and magnetic; the tone is simultaneously realistic and melodramatic.

“I expect Jacques to tell a very special story because when you see all his films each one is very special and rich,” says Cotillard. “But even for Jacques there are a lot of stories in this story. I didn’t expect it. Stéphanie is mysterious. The film is mysterious. And what I totally didn’t expect was to read a love story.”

The film’s many twists and turns amounted to an even greater challenge than Piaf, claims Cotilliard. The work, however, had to remain just that. “Now that I’m a mum I have to do things differently,” says the 37-year-old. “On Jacques’s movie at the end of the day I would run home to my family. Hearing ‘cut’ was my cue to get back to being a mother. Without a kid I would have worked differently. With a kid you can’t bring someone else home.”

She laughs: “Especially when she’s a totally fucked-up amputee girl.”

Did an inverted phantom-limb syndrome ever set in?

“Yes! I almost forgot I had legs. They were there all the time but I wouldn’t see them. The special-effects people were really brilliant and they were so discreet and fast that they never got in our way.”

She speaks in perfect English that can sound vaguely Los Angeles and vaguely London in the same sentence. Cotillard has been doing this for a long time. Born into an artistic Parisian household, she first entered into the family business as a child. “It was organic, natural,” she says.

It sure was. Her father is Jean-Claude Cotillard, a one-time mime and a Molière Award-winning director. Her mother, Niseema Theillaud, is an actor and drama teacher. Guillaume, one of Marion’s younger twin brothers, is a screenwriter and director.

“We were totally free to do whatever we wanted to do,” recalls Cotillard. “My parents just wanted us to be happy. What was important for my parents was for us to be free to be creative and to be respectful. Respect yourself and others and the place you live in. I started learning to act with my parents. They were always very physical with characters because they came from mime. And still I love to create a different way to talk, a different way to walk. I love that so much. It must be my favourite thing, finding the right way to think and the right body language.”

How did she turn out so feminine – she is, after all, the face of Lady Dior – as a known Leeds United supporter with only twin brothers for company?

“I think the relationship between twins is very, very special. And I was a little bit out of it. But all the games we had were very boyish. Most of the toys we had were for girls and boys. I don’t remember having a doll. I do remember having Lego. I was not very interested in girls’ things for a long time. It was only when I became more of a woman than a girl that I started to see that it was so, so fun and funny to be a girl.

She and her brothers became movie fans mostly through the agency of the VCR. They were quick, in accordance with French tradition, to think of cinema in terms of auteur theory.

“I loved Spielberg especially,” recalls Cotillard. “Like most kids. You’d have to hate movies to not love Spielberg.”

Cotillard remains passionate about the directors she works with. To date she can count Michael Mann, Arnaud Desplechin, Woody Allen, Yann Samuell, Steven Soderbergh, Tim Burton and Ridley Scott among her collaborators. Is it a guiding career principle, I wonder?

“Yes. No. I plan. But not always. I am so lucky that people want to work with me in the first place. And I’m so lucky because some of them are directors that I really want to work with. But if I don’t like the story or the project I will say ‘No’, and hope that one day they’ll come back with something else. I have a big, big list of directors that only my agent knows. There has to be something vibrant about the character or the project. It’s simple with me because I like it or I don’t like it. Sometimes I will like something but I’ll feel I did that before. Most of the time it gets into my blood and that’s it.”

Now that Hollywood has coming a-courting, it’s easy to forget that Cotillard spent 15 years as a working actor: she graced TV’s Highlander and Gérard Pirès’s ungainly Taxi sequence before her Oscar win.

She enjoys the challenge of working in English-language roles but she still prefers working in France where she has consistently found work in dark, unglamorous parts. On screen, she has indulged in crazy SM games in Love Me if You Dare, faced the guillotine for murder in A Very Long Engagement, and she has been chaotic and bipolar in Little White Lies.

“I think those characters are beautiful,” she says. “It’s the kind of work I love most.”

In common with Little White Lies, her next project, Blood Ties, is cowritten and directed by Canet, her partner of nine years.

“We don’t have rules. Of course we share what we do. But we don’t share everything that we do. Because he’s an actor I love when I see him in a movie and discover a whole life that I wasn’t fully aware of. But when we work together that’s a whole other subject. That’s trickier.”

The film – which will bring together Cotillard, her Rust and Bone cohort Schoenaerts, Clive Owen and Mila Kunis – will mark Canet and Cotillard’s first joint venture in American cinema. It’s exciting, she says, but it won’t herald a transatlantic move.

“I do love traveling. I love meeting new people and discovering new cultures. But my base will always be France. I’m lucky to be able to work outside my own country. But I love French cinema and I love being French.”

* Rust and Bone is out now


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