Marion Cotillard on life after Edith Piaf

Her turn as Piaf made her, but get ready for more defining roles from Marion Cotillard, writes Kaleem Aftab

"It was a dream come true,” says Marion Cotillard, describing the job she has just completed with the Dardenne brothers, the two-time Cannes Palme d’Or winners. But the statement could apply equally to everything she does. The actress will soon be in England, fulfilling another childhood ambition by playing Lady Macbeth in the latest big-screen adaptation of the Scottish play.

This is on top of two films that will soon be gracing our picture houses. The 38-year-old plays a down-on-her-luck Pole coming to 1920s New York in James Gray’s The Immigrant, and she has a part in the ensemble thriller Blood Ties, directed by French heartthrob Guillaume Canet, with whom she has a two-year-old son.

It’s not just on cinema screens where Cotillard has been wowing. Wherever she goes, someone has seemingly spent hours laying out a red carpet for her to strut down in the latest creation from Christian Dior. She’s been the promotional face of their handbag line since 2008, a contract that landed soon after she became the first woman since Sophia Loren in 1962 to win the Best Actress Oscar for performing a non-English language role.

In any room she enters, Cotillard is seemingly the only person there. This is true even when she dresses in jeans and a T-shirt, as she does when we meet at the Marrakech Film Festival, where she has been on jury duty, rubbing shoulders with heavyweight movie directors – Martin Scorsese, Paolo Sorrentino and Fatih Akin. Everything she does, even dressing down, oozes confidence.

Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in 'La Vie en Rose' Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in 'La Vie en Rose' How different it was when I first met the actress in 2004. At the time, she was getting rave reviews for her turn in the abstract romantic fantasy Love Me If You Dare. Looking back, the film is one of those curiosities that seemed to be a signifier for her life and career. She played an outsider of Polish extraction, who, over the years, plays destructive games of one-upmanship with her childhood best friend, depicted as an adult by a certain Mr Canet, who at the time was  married to the German actress Diane Kruger. Different interpretations of Édith Piaf’s “La  Vie en Rose” was one of the thematic motifs of the romantic tale – and three years later, it was playing La Môme Piaf that won Cotillard her Oscar.

But what always stuck in my mind was how nervous and awkward the actress seemed. At the time she said of her teenage years, “I was crazy, but I was not wild. I was not very sociable, not very happy either. I could do crazy things but in a way to destroy myself.” She continued, “I decided to be an actress. Perhaps the idea was to escape – but I realised that it was the exact opposite, that it was the only way to meet myself. To meet my true self and not to escape anymore... being someone else helped me to find my true self.”

Well it seems that fame, adoration and an Oscar can bring confidence. Meeting again, it’s hard to imagine a more sure-footed person.

She sees two big moments as altering the course of her career: “The first was Jean-Pierre Jeunet offering me the most beautiful role in A Very Long Engagement, which put a different light on my work.” Cotillard won a French César for her supporting role as an assassin in the First World War drama. In hindsight, it was the moment when the principal star, Audrey Tautou, handed over the baton as France’s most coveted actress.

The other, more predictably, was La vie en Rose, after the success of which, “I started to get proposals of good roles in America – and it was watching American films that first got me interested in acting.” 

Marion Cotillard at a photocall for her new film 'The Immigrant' Marion Cotillard at a photocall for her new film 'The Immigrant' Now she’s one of the most sought-after actresses in the world, as her recent cameo in Anchorman 2 demonstrates. She’s also one-half of France’s most famous movie couple. When I ask her how different performing is when the director is her husband, she pauses, reflects and then says, “Well, I sleep with the director.” She then holds her head in her hands, seemingly  embarrassed and adds, “It’s a joke – but it’s true.” I only realise later that whether or not Canet  and Cotillard have actually married has never been publicly announced. But she chooses not to correct me.

She also starred in Canet’s underrated 2010 family drama Little White Lies, as well as the forthcoming Blood Ties. Living with him has made her appreciate the director’s lot: “I now know what it is to direct a movie. I have to live the whole journey of realising a movie and I know how hard it is. Now when a director cannot get what he wants, most of the time because of money, it breaks my heart.”

She gives an example from The Immigrant. “I could feel that James was not happy on set, and I asked him if he was okay. He said, ‘yeah, I was just thinking about what I wanted to do’ – and he started to explain; it was beautiful, but then he added that it would cost twice the budget that he had. I felt that he was very sad, and it affected me more than it would have before, because I know what it’s like to put years of your life into a project and be frustrated.”

Gray is full of praise for Cotillard, saying, “She’s an actress who can perform without needing words.” When this is recounted to the Parisian, she retorts, “Yeah, he says that, and then he writes 20 pages of dialogue in Polish and asks me to do it.”

She spent three months learning Polish to play Ewa Cybulski, an immigrant who gets separated from her sister at Ellis Island and is then torn between two men, one volatile (Joaquin Phoenix) and the other sweet (Jeremy Renner).

The forthcoming year may be her best yet. Michael Fassbender will be playing Macbeth in the adaptation by Snowtown director Justin Kurzel. “I knew that one day I would play Lady Macbeth, but in my mind it would be on stage and in French,” she says. “I never thought that one day I would say the original lines, which took me ages to understand. I was very honest when I read the text for the first time. I called the director and said. ‘Thank God I know the story, because I didn’t get any of the words’. It’s kind of crazy for them to ask a French actress to do that.” 

On the subject of Lady Macbeth, Cotillard says that she’s infatuated by, “The depth of humanity in her – but it’s all driven away by fear and  despair. How you do things to have a better  life – but when they are against humanity, you will fail.”

Moral decisions are also central to her forthcoming turn in the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night. The film is expected to land at Cannes in May and Cotillard says, “The way they do cinema is everything that I love – and they pushed me as much as they could, and I was ready for anything. It’s hard to talk about the movie, because they are still editing and I haven’t seen it yet...” The film is about a woman who will not be made redundant if she can persuade bankers to forego their bonuses. She adds, “Okay, I know the set-up is fake.”

Fake or not, the plot is intriguing, and with Cotillard starring, it’s one of the most anticipated films of 2014.

"The Immigrant" and "Blood Ties" will be released in the spring

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