The first time I saw Marion Cotillard in the flesh was at this year’s TIFF. The jaw-droppingly gorgeous French actress was standing atop a long flight of stairs inside Michael’s on Simcoe. She was in town for the gala presentation of Rust and Bone, a dark and visceral French romance adapted from a collection of short stories by Toronto author Craig Davidson and directed by Jacques Audriard. In the film, she plays a killer whale trainer at Marineland who loses her legs in a freak accident involving an aquatic animal routine gone very, very wrong.
I happened to be coming up the stairs at Michael’s just as Cotillard, wearing bright blue and yellow satin heels, was about to go down. I saw the shoes before I saw the woman wearing them, and was about to compliment her when our eyes met, and I realized I was standing there with my one and only celebrity crush. I instantly froze. And then turned into a pile of mush.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not obsessed with Cotillard in a creepy stalker way—not like the New York woman who recently pleaded guilty to sending the actress more than 500 emails, plus over 100 web videos of her (the stalker, not Cotillard) hissing like a cat and talking about playing Russian roulette. My crush is much more innocuous. It started nearly a decade ago when I saw her in the dark French comedy Jeux d’enfants, in which she plays a fiery woman who falls for her handsome best friend, played by the heartthrob (and Cotillard’s real-life partner) Guillaume Canet. She had me at bonjour.
With Rust and Bone, which hits theatres this month, Cotillard is an early contender for a Best Actress Oscar. She’s already won the big prize once, for her depiction of Édith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en rose, which captured the conflicted chanteuse’s messy, selfish and tragic existence with an irrepressible intensity and almost eerie realism. She’s only the third French actress to take home the award—after Claudette Colbert, for 1934’s It Happened One Night, and Simone Signoret, for 1959’s Room at the Top—and the first to win for a French-language performance.
At the time, she could barely speak enough English to cobble together an acceptance speech, offering little more than a string of bumbled clichés and stunned thank yous. Five years later, she’s the public face of Rust and Bone for the film’s North American tour. At the TIFF screening, she deftly translated Audiard’s opening remarks, charming the capacity crowd.
Cotillard has come a long way in such a short time, and not just linguistically. Her post-Piaf resumé is a catalogue of big-name Hollywood directors—Michael Mann, Rob Marshall, Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh. Not to mention her most high-profile role to date, as Bruce Wayne’s mysterious romantic interest in The Dark Knight Rises, for which director Christopher Nolan adjusted the shooting schedule purely to accommodate Cotillard, who was pregnant with her first child.
And yet Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do with her. In the European films where I like her best, Cotillard is often cast as powerful, complicated women—roles that allow her to contrast an inner turmoil with her serene outer beauty. On this continent, she still gets stuck playing the foil to more
We got a taste of Cotillard unleashed in Nolan’s Inception, in which she played Leonardo DiCaprio’s dead wife, who haunts his dreams with ever-greater maliciousness. Every move she makes in the film insinuates violence, every facial expression is a threat. She channels that same intensity in the musical Nine, in which she cuts down her philandering husband, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, with a sassy striptease. Both roles hint at Cotillard’s range, and yet neither captures her at her best.
Rust and Bone is the kind of character-driven drama that allows Cotillard to be raw, ragged and a little ferocious. After the grisly accident with the whale, Cotillard’s character awakens in a hospital room and slowly becomes aware that she’s a double-amputee. She screams and hurls herself from her bed to the floor, writhing in agony. Her pain is so palpable it makes you squirm in your seat. She is slowly restored by a friendship-cum-romance with a drifting street fighter and deadbeat dad (played with brute force by Belgian-born dreamboat Matthias Schoenaerts).
The role of a tragically disabled person who finds love and the will to survive sounds like shameless Oscar bait, but Cotillard makes the melodramatic scenario feel real. Her performance doesn’t come off as capital-A Acting—it’s as if you are witnessing someone’s most private moments. When she and Schoenaerts’ character finally have sex, the moment is entirely unsexy. She wants to know if she is still capable of engaging in intimate physical acts, and he, rather perfunctorily, obliges.
It’s the kind of scene that couldn’t happen in any of the blockbusting popcorn flicks that characterize her newfound Tinseltown career, but it’s one that shows exactly what she is capable of. There aren’t any bat-suited superheroes in Rust and Bone. What it does have is the real Marion—the one capable of reducing a man to nothing more than mush.