Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Many Gifts Of Marion Cotillard

By Nadia Dalimonte 

When Forest Whitaker announced Marion Cotillard as the Best Actress winner for “La Vie en Rose” at the 80th Academy Awards, Cate Blanchett’s thrilled reaction said it all. Not only was the win so deeply deserving, but the awards platform invited a global audience to explore and appreciate an exquisite talent. The gift of being introduced to an actor’s work, with a performance as awe-inspiring as Cotillard’s, is that you will follow the actor forever. Marion Cotillard is the gift that keeps on giving; when revisiting all the passionate performances, one realizes how much she has given over the years as we anticipate what she will grace the screen with next. When “La Vie en Rose” was released, it was hard to imagine how she would follow what felt like a magnum opus. As it turns out, her portrayal of Édith Piaf is just one of many peaks in a phenomenal range of work.

Cotillard possesses the remarkable ability to get to the bottom of a character. She melts into their perspective and makes the whole acting process look easy, from delicately woven dramas and intimate character studies to star-studded ensembles and musicals. She has explored stirring worlds with excellent directors; James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone,” and most recently, Leos Carax’s “Annette,” to name a few. Plus, she has starred in her share of big-budget films, from co-starring with Brad Pitt in Robert Zemeckis’s “Allied” to a double collaboration with Christopher Nolan on “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” Across various genres and eras of storytelling, Cotillard has morphed into the spirit of a wide range of fascinating characters. While her choices of character have not always been the beneficiary of a good film, as was the case in her collaborations with Guillaume Canet (“Little White Lies” and “Blood Ties”), her open-hearted approach to given material rocks you to the core. In appreciation of her overall performances, here are the career highlights which showcase why Cotillard is one of our most gifted actors. 

Early Gems
Before winning the Oscar for “La Vie en Rose,” Cotillard frequently worked in France throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, collaborating with talent such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet. She found sudden fame following the release of the Gérard Pirès action comedy “Taxi,” which spawned several sequels. Imaginative French films such as Yann Samuell’s “Love Me If You Dare” and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement” sparkled with her magnetic screen presence. She invited us into cinematic worlds in ways only she could, with great delicacy and the sublime combination of a knowing gaze and wide-eyed innocence.

Cotillard’s early talent garnered attention from the César Awards. With two Most Promising Actress nominations for “Taxi” and Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s “Pretty Things,” plus a Best Supporting Actress win for “A Very Long Engagement,” Cotillard was on track to fulfill her dazzling potential. Consider her playfulness and infectious spirit in “Love Me If You Dare” or her intense monologue about life without regret in “A Very Long Engagement.” Think of how much of the film “Pretty Things” follows Cotillard’s energy around like a magnet, drawn to the power of her sensitivity and searing emotion. It was only a matter of time before a role as monumental as Édith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s biopic “La Vie en Rose” would along. Cotillard’s portrayal of the iconic French singer blew everyone away. It felt as if the soul-searching humanity of her previous work had been building to this moment, making for an unforgettable portrait of an extraordinary artist.

Coming Up Roses
When thinking back on some of the most incredible screen performances of all time, Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose” springs to mind. She is simply transcendent, not only in the film’s big scenes, such as the devastating whirlwind that is the ‘death of Marcel’ sequence, but also in moments of illuminating stillness; for example, the close-ups of Édith’s curious and excitable face while on a date with Marcel. To this day, what Cotillard achieved from the depths of her heart and soul as a performer is nothing short of a marvel. The emotional core of her character does not get lost in the hair and makeup work, nor does Cotillard rely on such technical prowess to do the heavy lifting. Instead, she does a deep dive into Piaf as a human being, from the moment the singer was discovered as a street performer to the tragic final days of her life, having achieved immeasurable success. Cotillard’s Oscar victory is one of the most thrilling acting wins in Academy history, and it was undoubtedly a stepping stone to international recognition of her talent.

By the late 2000s to early 2010s, Cotillard’s post-Oscar career exploded with a run of supporting roles in mainstream commercial films. She worked with some of the world’s most prolific directors including, Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh, to name a few. In cases when the material leaves a lot to be desired, she shines nevertheless. In films such as “Public Enemies” and especially “Nine,” the humanity she adds to each role ignites a spark that jolts you from dozing off. Case in point: she brings real emotion to Rob Marshall’s dull “re-imagining” of Fellini’s “8 ½,” stealing the show from an all-star cast with her heartbreaking ‘My Husband Makes Movies’ number, and makes the entire feat look easy. In “Inception,” she adds mysterious layers to a vague projection of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dreams, leaving you wanting to sit with the character of Mal and explore what Cotillard did to reach such an emotional impact. Even in a small role like Dr. Leonora Orantes in “Contagion,” her impressive emotional restraint is an unexpected change of pace from the film’s other storylines.

This string of supporting roles condensed Cotillard’s passion into glimmers of greatness, which made it all the more serendipitous that she followed up Soderbergh’s eerie pandemic drama with the lead role of Stéphanie in “Rust and Bone.” Jacques Audiard’s sensitive romance drama follows an orca trainer (played by Cotillard) who is faced with the journey of physical and mental rehabilitation after suffering a devastating accident. This character’s physicality recalls the level of commitment Cotillard brought to Piaf, undertaking a complex and transformative role that demands unwavering concentration. Cotillard internalizes Stéphanie’s condition and taps into the vulnerability of a woman piecing her independence back together with newfound fearlessness, ready to conquer her forever changed world.

Taking The Lead
The 2010s offered a treasure chest of Cotillard’s most compelling work since “La Vie en Rose.” Just when I thought she gave the best performance of her career, she gave us “Rust and Bone,” “The Immigrant,” “Two Days, One Night,” and “Macbeth” in a consecutive four-year span, knocking each role out of the park. In James Gray’s 1920s-set drama “The Immigrant,” she plays Ewa Cybulska, a Polish woman who (alongside her sister Magda) travels to New York searching for a new beginning, only to find a journey of pain and corruption when Magda is taken away, and Ewa’s desperation to save her is taken advantage of. Cotillard dominates the screen with such magnificent power your heart cannot help but break for her character.

The sting of her missing Academy recognition for this film is somewhat soothed by her second surprise Oscar nomination for Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s work-life drama “Two Days, One Night.” Her immense gift to the screen is an authentic portrayal of depression that resonates with clarity and understanding. She plays a working-class character faced with a personal crisis; Sandra has two days and one night to plead with her co-workers not to accept their bonuses so that she can keep her job. Cotillard’s simultaneous inner strength and fragility are a powerhouse. Her naturalistic acting is a perfect match for the Dardennes’ sensitive direction. She gives a voice to how strongly (to a fault) people associate their commitment to a job with their individual worth as a human being.

Humanity is a constant factor in Cotillard’s work. She never fails to approach a role with care, as though she has a safety net ready for them at all times to feel anything their heart desires. She leads with an understanding of character work, as felt in director Justin Kurzel’s scorching adaptation of “Macbeth,” for example. Her embodiment of Lady Macbeth is a majestic mix of vulnerability, ambition, and sheer calculation. Where the film lacks attention to character development, Cotillard rises above to fill the empty spaces. This is the case with much of her projects at the tail-end of the 2010s. While consistently enthralling to watch, films such as Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts,” Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World,” and Justin Kurzel’s “Assassin’s Creed” fell flat in keeping up with her talent. Robert Zemeckis’s old-fashioned romance-spy thriller “Allied” fares a bit better. The production is grand, the story is decently plotted, and Cotillard devours the character of Marianne Beauséjour. Playing a role set in the 1940s, she once again channeled her remarkable ability to be utterly believable in different eras.

What’s Next?
As for the current decade, Cotillard’s choices are indicative of what she had been doing for years: working with established names on ensemble pieces, taking risks with filmmakers who are newer on the scene, and balancing English language films with French films. It was high time a role like Ann Desfranoux in Leos Carax’s wild “Annette” came along for her to deep-dive into work again. In this visceral musical epic, she plays a globally renowned soprano whose life with husband Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) is splashed onto covers of magazines as showbiz headline fodder. Cotillard’s otherworldly talent is a perfect match for Ann, an ethereal character whose ghostly presence is literally haunting. In all the insanity happening on screen, Cotillard brings extraordinarily leveled grace in a situation where some actors would get lost. A second collaboration between her and Carax would be more than welcome.

This year, Cotillard reunites with director Arnaud Desplechin in the drama “Brother and Sister.” The film about estranged siblings was met with disappointing reactions at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, with the consensus sounding mixed at best. However, Cotillard has plenty of other upcoming projects to get excited about. She will appear in the forthcoming Apple TV+ climate change drama series “Extrapolations.” The star-studded series is written, directed, and executive produced by “Contagion” screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. New films on the horizon include plum roles in Brady Corbet’s “The Brutalist” and Ellen Kuras’s “Lee.” Both films could mark a banner year for Cotillard in 2023, with the latter in particular being a highly anticipated acting collaboration between her and Kate Winslet.

In looking back on Cotillard’s career, there is no calculation to her genius; simply a pure love for her characters and a fierce investigative search for authenticity in who she brings to life on screen. She has experienced vivid journeys over the years, from the soft hyperrealism of “A Very Long Engagement” and mind-bending sets of “Inception” to the striking cinematic landscape of “Macbeth.” What makes her performances in vastly different worlds feel so organic is her ability to internalize a character’s humanity and remain present in the moment. You could never completely map out where her performances will take you, which is the thrill of her talent. Cotillard takes the sentiment ‘don’t act, be’ to heart, and her work feels all the more real for it.

What is your favorite Marion Cotillard performance? is there one you feel is particularly underrated and doesn’t get brought up enough? Which if her upcoming titles are you most looking forward to seeing? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Nadia and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @nadreviews

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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