Category: Press

French Paradox

French Paradox

French actress Marion Cotillard is known for her exacting approach to Method acting but there was a time when she almost packed it all in, she tells Stephen Milton.

Towards the end of her Oscar speech, as she spluttered and nervously brushed her tumbling Veronica Lake curls behind her shoulder, Marion Cotillard made an earnest final statement of gratitude.

“Thank you life, thank you love,” she said, clutching the shiny statuette, a 
deserved accolade for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose.

“And it is true! There are some angels in this city.”

Cotillard [pronounced ko-tee-yar] is that rare anomaly: an A-list French actress who embraces Hollywood and all its vainglorious trappings.

Public Enemies, Inception, Nine, The Dark Knight Rises, Contagion – the blockbusters keep coming.

It’s a contrasting stance to that of her contemporaries, Juliette Binoche and Audrey Tautou.

While both fluttered with American success – Tautou in The Da Vinci Code and Binoche in Steve Carrell’s Dan in Real Life, and more recently, a four-minute appearance in Godzilla [which was largely a favour to her teenage son], they’ve remained resolutely loyal to the Gallic arts.

Fellow Oscar-winner Binoche told Weekend this summer: “I could have moved to America and had a big career there but it was never a purpose for me”.

And when we met last year, Tautou was far more scathing of the Hollywood system. “To do something else other than the ‘girlfriend’ there, it’s very difficult.”

Can Marion identify with this attitude?

“Not really,” she replies. “I’m lucky to have very interesting roles. Even being a girlfriend in a Michael Mann movie [Public Enemies], Johnny Depp’s girlfriend, was not so bad.”

Incidentally, one of Tinseltown’s biggest players rescued Marion’s career some five years before her throaty brilliance in La Vie En Rose earned her the Best Actress Oscar – the first for a French language performance.

“It was like 2002 and I started to feel kind of anxious and angry that sometimes, I would not get the big things that I wanted to get; the big directors, amazing roles. Not just in America but in France too.

“I thought I would stop, quit this job for a while.

“I had the energy to do different things. I really wanted to be active, not just waiting for my phone to ring and being happy because someone chose me.”

Cotillard glances outside the window, towards the London Eye. The hot sun bakes the grinding traffic on Victoria Embankment.

“So my agent said ‘OK, you just have to take one meeting and I know you’re going to be happy with it And if that doesn’t work, then you do what you want to do’.

“And that meeting was Tim Burton.”

The visionary director, best known for Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands was Marion’s idol growing up. She mirrored herself on his muse, Winona Ryder. He was interested in the young French beauty for a small part in his urban fairytale, Big Fish.

“I said, ‘OK, it’s going to be the test. If I get this one, I will not stop’. And there I was a few months later working with him. So I never stopped.”

She offered a distinctly weak handshake when we were introduced but the actress warms up as our interview progresses. Soon the unmistakeable velvet tone in her voice begins to dance and those deep slate green eyes flash.

In an airy white room in London’s Somerset House, the regal location for the premiere of her new film, Two Days, One Night, she perches on a black couch beside Weekend.

Predictably elegant in a midnight blue, embellished Dior shift dress – being one of the faces of the label – she recalls a sheltered, comfortable upbringing as the eldest of two actors turned drama teachers. Growing up in Orleans, Marion and her twin brothers, Quentin and Guillaume, were untroubled by the family’s shaky finances.

“Sometimes they had more money, sometimes they had less. But I guess they protected us in a way. We never really felt the ups and downs of the bank account. We never had a lot of money, so when we had a little less, it was not dramatic.

“I only actually experienced this when I started to live by myself, when I started acting and I was counting my coins and my bank account was, how do you say? Minus, minus…”

In her new film, crafted by Belgian auteurs, the Dardenne brothers, Cotillard is Sandra, a factory worker and mother, suffering from crippling depression. Facing redundancy after a lengthy period on sick leave, she must convince her fellow employees to forgo their bonus to save her job. It’s a cruel dilemma.

And delivering an intricate, absorbing performance, Oscar buzz is already buzzing for a portrayal of a shattered victim of France’s battered economy.

“It’s this social reality that a lot of people live today. And it asks so many questions. How do you live in a world where you feel worthless? Useless? With a society that puts you aside because you’re not good enough and you feel like you don’t have a place in this world?”

Marion’s depiction of numbing depression is stunning and as a mother herself, to three-year-old Marcel with her partner, actor and director Guillaume Canet, it had an emotional resonance.

“How can it push you to the point where you want to leave this world, because you feel useless? Because when you have kids, you are never useless. That’s what I found so interesting.”

Marion has spoken in the past about her propensity to absorb a character in method style. For Piaf, she shrank her body from its petite 5’6” frame to the tortured soul’s miniscule 4’11” stature by crippling and curling her form. She shaved her eyebrows and hairline and spoke in her gravelly voice, which she found difficult to shake months after production had wrapped.

For Sandra, Cotillard didn’t quite go to the same extremes, though the temptation was there. “I could have experienced and learned and documented so much but I didn’t.

“I learned about implications of panic attacks and the side effects of Xanax. That was it.

“I used to bury my whole self in the character but with a family, that is simply not practical.”

Cotillard met Canet while shooting drama, Love Me If You Dare. He was married to actress Diane Kruger while Marion was in a relationship with actor Stephan Guerin-Tillie. After his divorce in 2006, they reconnected and by the end of 2007, confirmed their relationship.

The French press branded them the equivalent of Brangelina. They welcomed son Marcel into the world three years ago. Family has overshadowed her previous priorities.

However, embodying classic literature’s ultimate femme fatale has pushed Cotillard’s limits.

“It’s the toughest job I’ve ever done,” she says of Lady Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s screen adaptation of the Bard’s Scottish play. Michael Fassbender is her malleable Macbeth. “And this character was really heavy to share my life with.”

She uncrosses and crosses her legs, entering into a mournful hypnosis.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself and I couldn’t get rid of this pressure. It was the darkest role I’ve ever had. And I have played some dark characters. Actually most of the movies I do, they’re not super happy to live.

“But at least, all the characters I had, even in the darkest places, there was a light. With her, no f**king light in Lady Macbeth. The darkness was kind of hard to experience.”

Fassbender’s known for his rapscallion ways. Surely he brought some relief to set.

“I think Michael was quite affected too. And the ideas that Justin and him had, I never knew how a scene would turn out. It was interesting to see him carrying Macbeth and I think it’s going to be, for him, I cannot even find the words to describe his Macbeth. It’s going to be so strong.”

Cotillard’s publicist stealthily creeps into the room. The French star is on the clock. Her premiere beckons.

Weekend wonders if she’s doing herself a disservice with these shadowy, sorrowful characters. Her Piaf exhibited a sly comic timing. And she inexplicably appeared in a bizarre montage for Anchorman 2 last year. Isn’t it time the star pushed for a funny role and left the sadness behind?

“That’s the plan,” she cries. “I can do comedy. I did it when I started but it was not my best work.

“But something along the lines of Bridesmaids. That slapstick comedy, that’s exactly what I’m after. It’s not necessarily my area. And I would have to work hard.”

I can already spot the whurs and clinks in her intricate thought process. She’s planning her descent into the mind of a chaotic maid of honour. Studying the method behind the fart jokes and vomit gags.

“I would have to work hard,” the actress repeats, tapping her chin.

Hopefully not too hard…

Two Days, One Night is in cinemas this weekend

Marion Cotillard confronts redundancy fears

Marion Cotillard confronts redundancy fears

She’s topped the list of France’s highest-paid actors – but in her new film, Two Days, One Night, Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard plays a factory worker who is forced to beg her colleagues to save her job under the threat of redundancy.

The movie, directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, tells the contemporary story of Sandra, who has had a long-term absence from work due to depression.

Her employers give her colleagues a choice: either they vote to make Sandra redundant, or they each forego their 1,000 euro annual bonus.

Sandra has one weekend to confront and convince each of them to choose her job over their money.

Cotillard is the star of Hollywood films including The Dark Knight Rises, Midnight in Paris and The Immigrant, as well as 2007’s La Vie En Rose, for which she won a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf.

She is the face of the luxury brand Christian Dior, and in 2011 figures released by Le Figaro newspaper put her as the highest-earning actor in France. She admits that Sandra’s world was a very different one for her to enter.

“She’s an ordinary woman,” says Cotillard. “A worker who knows what things cost, because she has to.

“She understands why some colleagues have chosen to pocket the bonus rather than for her to keep her job. Most of them need it too, to pay their bills. The film doesn’t judge anyone, that’s what makes it so powerful.

“As an actor trying to work, I have to sell myself every day in some way, but me fighting for a job is a totally different situation, because for her it’s a matter of survival. It’s a matter of staying around to put some food on her family’s plates.

“I could not compare it with any fight I have ever had on my hands; it would not reach her struggle for her dignity and her health.”

The actress took the role after a chance meeting with the Dardenne brothers in an elevator, while she was filming Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. She says it was partly because she admired the brothers’ films.

“They are double Palme d’Or winners at Cannes and I thought it was an impossible dream to work with them.”

Cotillard also says she was motivated by her worries over the economic crisis, and a culture that places a high value on job status.

“Some time ago, I had a very profound questioning about the place we have in the society that we have created. Some people are pushed by what we have created to question their place in the world and whether they even deserve one.

“In one scene Sandra even says, ‘I am nothing.’ This feeling of uselessness lives deep inside her, as it does for a lot of people who don’t know how to deal with their work or the lack of it.

“Several months before we shot the film, I was shocked to read reports about work-related suicides, people who’d rather end it all than endure this feeling of being useless.

“I remember reading about one man in particular, who left a letter saying he had no place in the world. So this is something that we have created, because we don’t seem to care about people like this, whether they disappear or not.

“It was interesting to connect these questions that I had from a long time ago, with this script.”

Feeling “worthless”, however, is not an emotion she has had since the birth of her son Marcel, with partner Guillaume Canet, in 2011.

“It was a big question for me when I was thinking about these people who said they feel worthless,” she admits.

“I’d ask myself, ‘How can you feel useless when you have kids?’ But I do see there is also space inside all of us that needs to be useful and that can’t just be filled with love.

“I also need to work, as much as I love my life as a mother. I would miss something if I was just that, and I would miss, in my case, a way to express myself.

“But if I was not an actress and I was in the workplace, I would still need to be part of the dynamic, to bring something to this world – even if I do think our society is crazy.”

Two Days, One Night was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where Cotillard was widely tipped to win the best actress prize for the part of Sandra – an award that went in the end to Julianne Moore for David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars.

The Telegraph said the film was “dripping with juice” and called Cotillard “just superb”, while Empire magazine described it as “a rare film of unforced simplicity, with an outstanding lead performance”.

Although the actress says she combats “crazy” society with a certain amount of environmental activism for Greenpeace, she says that she intends to keep acting as her job.

Becoming involved in social issues is not something she can combine with her full-time work, she argues. Nor, she insists, can any celebrity.

“Working for the UN, for example, like Angelina Jolie does, would have to be a main role for me, and even Angelina Jolie herself says she won’t be an actress all her life,” Cotillard points out.

“She clearly has something more important to do, and she will be very good at it. In the evolution of who she is as a woman, she will turn herself into what really moves her.

“I am not sure that you can be an actor too, and be heard properly in both arenas. I work with people and I am very happy to give them a voice whenever I can, but it cannot be an extra role.

“One day I might have to choose if it becomes more important than the need that I have to express myself as an actress. We’ll see.

“But even if it’s questioning a subject on a very deep level, it’s very difficult to combine entertainment, and any fight for awareness.”

Two Days, One Night is out in the UK and Ireland on 22 August.

A Conversation with Marion Cotillard

A Conversation with Marion Cotillard

How did you meet the Dardenne brothers?
We met briefly in Belgium, on the set of Jacques Audiardʼs Rust and Bone; a very short meeting, between two elevators. I was slightly in awe, as I have always admired them so much… A few months after Rust and Bone was released my agent called me and said that Luc and Jean-Pierre wanted to offer me a part. I couldnʼt believe it. I thought working with them was beyond of my reach.

I know that working in the US would open doors to certain filmmakers for me. But the Dardennes? I couldnʼt even imagine it… they donʼt usually work with actors like me. Cécile de France worked with them on The Kid With a Bike, but sheʼs Belgian and her appearing in their universe was less astonishing than me doing the same. So it was a real surprise they contacted me, and an absolute joy.

How would you define their cinema?
Each of their films closely observes the realities of society while taking new cinematic risks. They make real auteur films – you canʼt get much more auteur than Luc and Jean-Pierre – but manage to defy any categorization! Their cinema is absolutely universal.

What was your first reaction when they offered you the role of Sandra?
During our first meeting I was bubbling with ideas, just like a kid! I tried really hard to hold it all in but it had to come out. I said: “Iʼm so happy to be working with you, I could turn somersaults!” I had to tell them how I felt before moving on to more serious business!

How did they present Two Days, One Night to you?
They spoke a little about the filmʼs subject, but I really discovered Sandraʼs story when I read the screenplay. I realized what a beautiful real-life hero she was and what a challenge it would be for me to play this part: a woman who meets each of her colleagues and tries to convince them to reconsider their vote. The aspect of repetition meant I would have to work hard on nuances and variations.

How would you define Sandra?
She is an ordinary woman, a worker who knows what things cost, because she has to. She understands why some (of her colleagues) have chosen to pocket the thousand Euro bonus rather than voting for her to keep her job. No one knows what she would have done in their place and the film doesnʼt judge anyone. Thatʼs what makes it so powerful. She suffers from depression…

In one scene she even says: “I am nothing”. This feeling of uselessness lives deep inside her, as it does for a lot of people who donʼt know how to deal with their work or the lack of it. Several months before we shot the film, I had been deeply shocked to read articles and reports about work-related suicides, people whoʼd rather end it all than endure this feeling of being useless. The film echoes with some of these events that had struck me so.

How do the Dardenne brothers work?
We rehearsed for over a month – a crucial phase. It was all about working on the locations, the energy of the characters, and the rhythm of the scenes. This work is as complex as it is essential work, all the more so since the brothers shoot in long takes. I had to lose my French accent, which I was dreading the most, without falling into a faked Belgian accent, which would have been a real mistake. These rehearsals allowed me to be more comfortable with the whole Belgian aspect…

The film carefully avoids any self-indulgent dwelling on the sordid side of life.
With the Dardennes, the intent must always stay in the shadows, and this suits me. Even when my parts lend themselves to a ʻperformanceʼ I always try to conceal my acting, so the audience can be with the character and her emotions. When you like working this way, you canʼt ask for anything more than working with the Dardenne brothers.

How do they direct actors on set?
Thanks to all the work achieved during rehearsals, Luc and Jean-Pierre can concentrate above all on the actorsʼ work during the shoot. They are demanding like no one else… Each and every detail matters so much that they will do things again and again. Thatʼs the price for the intensity and truth in their films. Had they asked me to shoot 250 takes for one scene, I would have done it. I never grew sick of it… Iʼve never been directed like this before.

You and Fabrizio Rongione make a very believable couple.
Rehearsals had a lot to do with it. On a film like this you have to meet before the Shooting starts. Rehearsals allowed us to get used to each other. Fabrizio is a Dardenne brothers old hand: he has appeared in most of their films. He fits very well in their world because he shares the same authenticity. I was very lucky to work with him under their direction.

The part of Sandra is very different to the roles you have played in the US recently.
I have always dreamed of this kind of diversity, going from one to the other. I feel extremely lucky to be able to switch worlds like this. I have realized the dream I had as a young actress: to explore different genres and territories, with real filmmakers.

Will Two Days, One Night remain a special film in your career?
Yes, for sure. I have had some fabulous experiences but this one was the deepest and the most idyllic of all. I have never felt so taken care of by a director – sorry, two directors! Luc, Jean-Pierre and I were “accomplices” from the first to the last day of shooting. When the time came for the last shot I felt so very sad to know it was over.

Would you like to work with the brothers again?
Whenever they want! They donʼt even need to show me a script, Iʼll accept right away. Iʼd love be their new Jérémie Renier or Olivier Gourmet.

Once again you find yourself in competition at Cannes, a year after James Grayʼs The Immigrant. And two years after Jacques Audiardʼs Rust and Bone.
To climb the red carpet with Luc and Jean-Pierre, who have made their cinema live at Cannes, itʼs magic, nothing less. They took me on such a cinematic and human adventure that nothing could make me happier than to be beside hem at the Festival.



Héroïne de “Deux jours, une nuit”, des frères Dardenne, présenté en compétition, l’actrice revient sur les cinéastes (James Gray, Jacques Audiard) qui ont marqué sa carrière

Marion Cotillard est assise sur un canapé, dans le salon de son agent. « Ça ne vous dérange pas que je fume ? », demande-t-elle et la voilà qui plonge aussitôt dans son sac à la recherche de son tabac. Car elle roule elle-même ses cigarettes, non sans une certaine maladresse qui la fait sourire. « Ça ressemble à un pétard, vous ne trouvez pas ? Heureusement que vous ne filmez pas ! »

Elle accepte des rôles complexes, délicats, étranges. Des performances qui lui donnent souvent du fil à retordre. « Je sais, et ça ne s’arrange pas avec le temps. En début d’année, j’ai accepté de jouer Macbeth, sous la direction de Justin Kurzel (Les Crimes de Snowtown), avec Michael Fassbender. En anglais… Une pure folie ! Faudra que je me décide à comprendre, un jour, pourquoi je me pourris ainsi la vie. Mon problème, c’est d’obéir à des coups de cœur. Je choisis d’abord, je réfléchis après… »

Mais elle choisit bien. La revoilà à Cannes pour la troisième année consécutive. Après Jacques Audiard (De rouille et d’os, 2012) et James Gray (The Immigrant, 2013, superbe mélo incompris), elle a rejoint l’univers de Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne. Dans Deux jours, une nuit, elle interprète une ouvrière qui cherche à convaincre ses collègues de la soutenir pour lui éviter le renvoi…

Les frères Dardenne

« Je peux me montrer combative pour tourner avec un ­cinéaste que j’aime, mais les Dardenne me paraissaient inaccessibles. Ils étaient trop loin de moi, de ma filmographie… Quand ils m’ont appelée, il m’a semblé, comme dans un conte, entrer dans un monde qui, en tant que spectatrice, me transportait. J’avais vu tous leurs films plusieurs fois et, au début, je leur ai posé un tas de questions de fan, au risque de les soûler ! Dans Le Fils, par exemple, mon préféré avec Le Gamin au vélo, j’avais été émerveillée par une scène où l’enfant passe à l’arrière de la voiture conduite par Olivier Gourmet. C’est simple, en apparence. En fait, le plan est d’une complexité technique incroyable. Et j’avais la chance qu’ils me l’expliquent en détail, à moi, leur spectatrice…

C’est ce que j’aime en eux : ils ne cessent de penser au spectateur, contrairement à tant de cinéastes qui le considèrent comme… peut-être pas inutile, mais surnuméraire. Attention, la question n’est pas, pour eux, de plaire au spectateur, de le séduire à tout prix, mais au contraire de le dérouter et de le surprendre. Il reste présent dans leurs pensées à chaque étape de leur travail… Jean-Pierre et Luc commencent par répéter, durant des semaines, seuls tous les deux. J’aurais vraiment aimé être une petite souris pour les observer, jouant ainsi tous les rôles et esquissant leurs futurs mouvements de caméra… Ensuite, un bon mois durant, se tiennent les vraies répétitions, dans les décors et avec les comédiens. Là, ils ne se préoccupent pas encore du jeu des acteurs, mais moi, dans l’énergie de leurs plans séquences, je choisissais déjà les attitudes et les intonations du personnage. Ils m’ont cependant demandé d’effacer mon accent parisien. “Pour en adopter un belge ?”, ai-je demandé. “Juste quelques résonances”, ont-ils répondu. Bon !…

Comme actrice, je n’ai pas de méthode. Mais pour certains rôles plus compliqués je commence, dès les répétitions, à travailler de mon côté avec les éléments que j’ai, et surtout avec ceux que je n’ai pas. Je m’isole dans ma chambre, des soirées entières, et je médite. Peu à peu, au cours de ces rêveries, des images m’apparaissent, des musiques aussi, des bouts de scènes qui me révèlent le personnage, ses ­secrets, ses manques, ses doutes. Ce qui le fait avancer, ce qui le bloque, ce qui le met en colère. Certaines trouvailles ne me plaisent pas forcément, mais je les garde. Et je les note sur un carnet. Certaines pistes disparaissent, d’autres persistent et je m’y accroche. Elles deviennent des évidences pour toute l’aventure du tournage.

Je suis sûre que beaucoup me trouveront bêtassonne, ridicule ou prétentieuse. Je m’en fous, ça m’aide… Sur le film des Dardenne par exemple, où tout est minutieusement écrit, moi, je me disais constamment : “A quoi pense-t-elle quand elle ne dit rien ? Pourquoi a-t-elle fait une dépression ? Comment s’en est-elle sortie ? A-t-elle conscience du mal qu’elle a pu causer à ses proches ?…” Et je me plongeais dans mon carnet. Tout ce que j’ai pu imaginer et y noter, personne ne le connaît, pas même les frères. Ça ne regarde que moi. C’est mon boulot.

Il m’a été utile, ce carnet ! Car les Dardenne sont d’une méti­culosité incroyable. A la fin d’un plan séquence de huit minutes, ils sont capables de me dire d’enfiler ma chaussure droite, de respirer trois secondes – pas quatre ! – et de verser deux larmes – pas une, deux – tout en enfilant ma chaussure gauche. Et on recommencera soixante fois le plan séquence s’ils n’en sont pas satisfaits. Moi, ça me ravit, ça m’excite. Mais quand, au bout de plusieurs heures, je me sentais moins sincère, hop ! je puisais dans mon carnet d’autres pistes, d’autres repères pour leur donner l’émotion qu’ils attendaient. »

James Gray

« Avec James Gray, j’ai moins eu besoin de mon petit carnet. Je n’avais pas à inventer le passé de mon personnage, parce que James le nourrissait lui-même en me parlant de ses origines, de sa famille. C’est un conteur extraordinaire ; il adore, à travers ce qu’il dit, vous aider à éprouver ce qu’il veut. Avec lui, l’inspiration vient de l’information.

Le plus dur, pour moi, c’était les accents. J’avais un coach pour me faire parler anglais avec un accent polonais. Et un autre pour me faire parler polonais sans accent du tout… Évidemment, dans ma pauvre tête, je voyais tous les Polonais de la Terre venir voir le film et hurler de rire. A la fin de chaque prise, au grand étonnement de James – ce qui me rendait folle de rage – je me ruais sur mes vingt-deux pages en polonais pour travailler la prononciation encore et encore. Stress total…

James ne dirige pas aussi précisément que les Dardenne – personne ne le peut ! Mais pour la scène de l’église, il s’est montré méticuleux. Avant d’émigrer en Amérique, Ewa, mon personnage, était infirmière. “Elle a donc le goût des autres”, m’expliquait-il et il voulait que, filmée de très près, j’exprime cette dévotion. Sa foi en Dieu, sa passion pour sa sœur et même son affection pour cet homme amoureux qui la prostituait. C’est un personnage de Dostoïevski, Ewa ; elle a la capacité d’entrevoir la lumière en chaque être, même le plus sombre. De déceler la beauté chez celui qui refuse de la voir en lui… 

On a beaucoup travaillé. De prise en prise, on a essayé de magnifier la scène, de faire naître des intensités différentes, jusqu’à l’hystérie pure – comme dans ces chaînes de télé américaines où les fidèles se perdent dans la démesure. James voulait que le spectateur sente le don total d’Ewa. Son sacrifice absolu. Je ne me souviens plus du détail de ses indications, mais le mot qui m’a accompagnée tout le temps était « incandescence ». Et c’est ce qu’est le film, je crois, pas forcément émouvant, mais incandescent. J’ai parlé à James du reproche de froideur qu’on allait lui faire. Il m’a répondu, étonné : “Mais je suis ainsi.” En fait, c’est un hypersensible qui prétend ne pas l’être, sans que l’on sache vraiment s’il croit lui-même à ce qu’il dit. »

Jacques Audiard

« J’aimerais parfois être Daniel Day-Lewis. Il va voir les décideurs : “Je veux six mois de répétition, sinon je ne fais pas le film”… Pour De rouille et d’os, j’ai fait exactement l’inverse. J’étais à Hollywood – je finissais Batman –, donc je ne pouvais pas assister aux répétitions prévues. Et comme je venais d’avoir un bébé, je n’étais pas très disponible le soir, après les prises. Je sentais Jacques frustré et ça m’angoissait. Je ne voulais pas qu’il me croie indifférente, je-m’en-foutiste, paresseuse. Au contraire, j’adorais le personnage. Aussi abîmée soit-elle, Stéphanie est le rôle le plus sexy que j’ai jamais joué. A tel point que j’ai adoré tourner ses scènes d’amour. Généralement pour moi, c’est une épreuve, une horreur… Là, j’étais heureuse qu’elle puisse, soudain, un peu grâce à moi, redécouvrir la sensualité, le sexe, le plaisir. Sa renaissance me bouleversait…

Jacques traîne toujours un « cahier B », parallèle au scénario officiel : il y écrit des scènes qu’il tournera ou non, mais qui, même tournées, ne se retrouveront pas forcément dans la version définitive. J’ai cru remarquer qu’il se montrait nettement plus directif quand il utilisait son « cahier B » : la scène où je répète les gestes de mon numéro avec les orques, il me l’a fait recommencer un nombre incalculable de fois… En fait, c’est après le tournage qu’il m’a, je crois, appréciée. Sans doute a-t-il compris que je regrettais de ne pas avoir pu lui apporter, aux répétitions, ce qu’il souhaitait. On doit se ressembler. Avec lui, on ne sait pas toujours où l’on va, mais quand on y arrive, on le sent… Je déteste décevoir mon réalisateur : mon rêve, à chaque fois, c’est de plonger dans son univers pour tenter d’y trouver, avec lui, des parcelles d’authenticité. Tout le reste, c’est de l’inutile. Du superflu… »

En compétition

Deux jours, une nuit, de Jean-Pierre et Luc Dardenne, en salles le 21 mai.

La vie en bleu

La vie en bleu

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

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