La belle dame avec merci
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.