Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard talks about working with the Dardenne brothers, and taking on her toughest role yet
Marion Cotillard is the great silent film actress of our time. True, she has yet to make a silent film and may never actually do so, but let’s not get hung up on technicalities. Her power on screen has less to do with what she says than how she looks – not in terms of her appearance, but in the way those teacup-sized eyes seem to drink up the world around her, collecting an entire film’s worth of feeling into a single gaze or glance.
Her contemporaries are Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron, but her peers are Pola Negri, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. When Cotillard falls silent, a cinema soon follows suit.
Her very best scene in La vie en rose, the Édith Piaf biopic that won her an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Bafta and a César, wasn’t the big performance of Non, je ne regrette rien at the Paris Olympia, cheesily but rightly held back for the film’s final curtain, but a smaller sequence in a New York concert hall, in which you don’t hear the actress say or sing a single word.
As Piaf walks on stage, the sound drops away to a tinkling piano melody, leaving the vocal track mute. When she opens her mouth, you watch her feeling every line in her bones, reaching out and wrenching the song from the air, so convincingly you swear you can hear every absent note. Cotillard’s vocal performances in La vie en rose were lip-synched to recordings of Piaf herself, so the film never sounds less than authentic. It’s only here, when that legendary voice vanishes completely, that you realise Cotillard is making you see the music.
In the film, Cotillard is angular and eccentric; a twitchy tessellation of knees and fingers. Standing in the spotlight in her white stage make-up, she looks almost Chaplinesque. The French actress has a tragic clown quality that reminds you of Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini’s La Strada – and, in one of the strange, spiderweb connections that criss-cross Cotillard’s career, she would go on to play a version of Masina in the Hollywood musical Nine, two years after that Best Actress Oscar, the only one awarded to date for a French-speaking role. It made lead roles in Hollywood musicals possible for her.
The real life Cotillard is so different from the version of her we see on screen that she could almost be her younger, shier sister, or perhaps a work experience Cotillard-in-training. When we meet in an apartment in the Ham Yard Hotel in the West End of London, she’s barefoot, sitting cross-legged on a sofa, quiet and small, with a smile as soft as butter.
She is dressed so stylishly that it’s hard to say exactly what she’s wearing: the main garment, a structured, conical cream thing with neat black trim, is a three-way blend of duvet, poncho and tipi, and she holds it around herself like a child snuggling into a quilt. She’ll be 39 next month, but looks 24.
Cotillard is in town for the premiere of her new film, Two Days, One Night, in which she plays Sandra, a woman who spends a frantic weekend begging, wheedling and cajoling her co-workers to save her from the sack.
In a sense, the role is exactly what we’ve come to expect from her. Sandra is fighting for survival but also for her dignity – which, for Cotillard heroines, is often one and the same thing. When I point out the link, she seems first confused, then surprised, as if it had never occurred to her.
“I suppose, if I think about it, it’s true,” she says, looking momentarily to one side. “All of the characters I’ve had the chance to create are survivors. But we live in a world where surviving makes up most of what we do.”
In Two Days, One Night, though, the fight for survival feels different: it’s less heightened than it has been before, more risky and immediate. Unlike Piaf, or Luisa Contini in Nine, or Billie Frechette, the gangster’s moll in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Sandra’s plight isn’t cushioned by period costumes, or the plush patterns of melodrama. She’s a working mother, getting by in the unglamorous present.
The film clicks into action with a phone call. Sandra, who at the start of the film is on sick leave due to depression, hears from a friend that her colleagues have voted her out of a job. Presented by management with the choice of either Sandra’s continued employment or their annual bonus, they opted for the latter. Sandra petitions her boss to take the vote again on Monday morning, once she has had a chance to talk to her co-workers, and spends her Saturday and Sunday visiting them in turn, making her case, appealing to their sense of solidarity.
It’s a warm summer weekend, which means Sandra is fighting for her future in jeans and a vest top. Her Public Enemies fur stole and scarlet slip-dress, gorgeous as they were, would be all wrong here. Sandra has to face the world unarmoured.
There are two good reasons for this: namely the film’s writers and directors, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The Dardennes are brothers from Belgium who specialise in dramas set on society’s fraying edge, just a thread or two away from documentary. Their films are set in and around the brothers’ home town of Seraing, a one-time furnace of coal and steel now long-cooled and low on hope.
From film to film, they use the same core crew, but spice things up by casting first-time actors in key roles. Unknown faces are a crucial part of the Dardenne formula: the films have to feel as if they might be unfolding in real time around the corner. Casting Cotillard was a boon, but also a risk.
“I was a huge fan of their work, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to work with them,” she says. “So of course when they asked me it was a huge surprise.”
The Dardennes were less wary: they knew Cotillard was right for the role after meeting her on the set of the Jacques Audiard film Rust and Bone, which they co-produced. “We weren’t thinking ‘we need a star’, but ‘we need her,’ Jean-Pierre, speaking through a translator, tells me later that afternoon.
“We had seen her in a few films, including La vie en rose, and thought she might work in this role. But the most important thing was meeting her. When we saw her actually filming with Audiard, it was a cinematic coupe de foudre.”
The French expression here is normally translated as love at first sight, but its literal meaning is “lightning bolt”, which is an ideal description of Cotillard’s work in that film. Rust and Bone is a bruising, glittering romantic drama in which Stéphanie, a killer whale trainer played by Cotillard, falls in love with Ali, a highly sexed kickboxer. Initially, the attraction between the two is uncertain, but it suddenly roars into life after Cotillard’s character is severely disabled in an accident.
The film contains the best scene Cotillard has ever done: after making love with Ali, Stéphanie sits on her roof terrace in her wheelchair and, for the first time since her accident, runs through her old whale training commands. At first, she moves hesitantly, but as her confidence builds her smile tightens, and her gestures become punches of defiance – reverse lightning, striking upwards from the ground to the sky.
It’s not, however, a style of acting that would fit particularly well in a Dardennes film. Fortunately, a month-long rehearsal period for Two Days, One Night allowed Cotillard the chance to acclimatise – “melt in”, is how she puts it – to the brothers’ unusual way of working.
In particular, their fondness for shooting scenes in a single take, and then re-shooting and re-shooting them, over and over again, was something new. “I think we did 56 takes of the same scene on the second day,” she says. “Another day we did 82 takes, then later we went almost up to one hundred.” To keep her performance fresh, she created an entire life story for Sandra that she could dip down into, like a well of emotions, when she found herself drying up.
“I needed to know what was her life was like when she was at the highest state of depression – how it affected her husband, her kids,” she says. “I wrote a lot of things about her parents, I created a brother, and a whole relationship with him that has nothing to do with the film, so I had enough material to go to.
“So for example when Sandra has to burst into tears in the middle of a take, I have to feed that with something. But after 40 takes, what I had was not enough, so I had to create more and more.”
It’s perhaps most evident in the parts of the film in which Sandra wrestles with depression – fearsomely realistic scenes which Cotillard says were informed by her own brush with the illness a number of years ago. “I came close to depression, but when I started to feel I could really lose myself, I somehow escaped it,” she says.
“But for a while, I knew what it was to have no taste for anything any more. I felt empty and useless. So I took that and emphasised it.” She read around the subject too, in an attempt to more fully understand its symptoms and effects, and avoid wailing, teeth-gnashing clichés.
“When people don’t know exactly what depression is, they can be judgmental. ‘What, you can’t get out of bed in the morning?’”, she says, frowning, in a mock-stern tone of voice. “If you don’t understand the illness, you just think it can’t be that hard to move yourself. And actually, it is.”
Cotillard found that Sandra’s despair was following her home in the evenings, to the extent that twice during the shoot, she packed off her three-year-old son, Marcel, to stay with his father, the actor and director Guillaume Canet.
“I’m affected by the characters I play, and sometimes they’re hard to live with,” she says. Compared to the ghost of Piaf, though, it was manageable.
“La vie en rose was the first time I had a problem getting out of character,” she says, shifting in her seat. “I didn’t understand why I couldn’t and, I was ashamed of it – of not being able to go back to my life.”
At the time she was living in Paris, and found that Piaf was inescapable. Her croaky voice would surface unexpectedly during conversation, and she would see the singer’s face staring out at her from the mirror. “My eyebrows and forehead had been shaved for months, and were only starting to grow back, and I looked like s—,” she says. “And I would go to a dinner and before arriving, I would realise that it was close to where she had lived. Always, things like that. I felt connected to her in a way that was not healthy for me.”
In another one of those spiderweb connections, Non, je ne regrette rien came back to haunt Cotillard in Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction thriller Inception – or rather, she came back to haunt it. In that film, the Piaf song is a sign that the dreamworlds created by Cobb, Leonardo DiCaprio’s psychic spy, are about to collapse – a sign that Cotillard’s character Mal, the pointedly named femme fatale of the piece, refuses to heed.
Inception was a film that took place on grey roads and in beige hotel corridors: it took Cotillard – as the spectre of Cobb’s wife, luring him to a life in limbo – to charge its world and colour it with emotion. Next, she will star as Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender in a new film version of the Shakespeare play, which she shot earlier this year. As she talks about the role – the research, the scenery, the accent (after some experimentation, she opted for French-inflected English), the various grim mental states she had to plunge herself into – she seems oddly like an Inception character, freshly returned from another dreamworld.
“Getting in is part of the process, but so is getting out,” she says. “I want to go as deep as I can, but in a way that allows me to come back.”
‘Two Days, One Night’ is in cinemas from Friday August 22