In person, French actress and star Marion Cotillard is tall, confident and with a quicksilver responsiveness that skips from laughter and exuberance to moments of intense thought and introspection. Dressed casually in blue jeans and a blouse, taking interviews at New York’s Gramercy Hotel, she seems very far away from the character of Edith Piaf she plays in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en rose, which just had its American premiere at New York’s “Rendezvous with French Cinema” series.
I am careful to say here “the character of Edith Piaf.” While Piaf fans will marvel at Cotillard’s ability to seemingly inhabit the diminutive body (Piaf was 4’8”) of the beloved French singer and icon, the actress is quite clear that her performance is a construct, a synthesis of what’s known of Piaf’s life story, Dahan’s dramatic interpretation of it, and elements of Cotillard herself. Sharing with Dahan a bold approach to the sometimes musty genre of the biopic, Cotillard’s performance, which will undoubtedly be recognized come awards time, can be placed alongside Forest Whitaker’s in Bird and Jeffrey Wright’s in Basquiat in the way it blasts through historical detail to get at emotional truths about the life of an artist.
Dahan, working from his and Isabelle Sobelman’s script, allows Piaf’s music — both its melodies and the outsize emotions contained within its lyrics – to guide the film’s structure. La Vie en rose jumps back and forth across decades, compressing biographical detail (Piaf’s daughter, who died in infancy, only appears in what might be an hallucination on her deathbed) while giving full play to the songs. And while Piaf may have died tragically at 47, with illness and drug use transforming her body into that of someone many years older, the film ends triumphantly with her best known song, “Non, Je ne regrette rien,” which, in her later years, became her credo. The real Piaf would surely have not wanted it any other way.
SYLVIE TESTUD WITH MARION COTILLARD (RIGHT) AS EDITH PIAF IN LA VIE EN ROSE
How much did you know about Edith Piaf when you were first approached for this part? I knew a few songs and that she always dressed in black when she was onstage. And I knew that she had a very specific body language [when singing] her songs. But that’s it.
For the young French audience, is she someone who seems very much of the past, or does she still have a presence in the culture? In one way, yes, she is from the past because we don’t make this kind of music anymore. The way she sang with the rolling of the R’s is very specific to that time. But people still listen to her music. Her songs are love songs, and I think people still listen to Piaf because her songs are eternal. So in a way it’s old, and in a way it’s not.
Did you have a central conception of Piaf’s character that you based your performance around? Yes, of course, I have an idea [of Piaf] based on all I read about her life, which was a life of extreme things. She was an extreme person. Olivier Dahan and I, we had the same idea. The idea was, well, it’s hard to put it into words. We loved her for sure, but we also saw her dark side. Olivier really wanted to show that, so we were not like lovers without eyes and ears.
How did you work together with Olivier to build the performance? I didn’t know Olivier before we met for the project. When I read the script, I was speechless. I thought, Who is this crazy guy who thinks that only one [actress] will play [Piaf] from 19 to 47? At 47 she looked like she was 70! We first [met] at that French café near the [famous French cemetery] Père Lachaise. I live [near] there, and she’s buried there. There was a kind of fate that brought us together, but even fate is too strong a word -it was just normal. As I said before, Olivier and I had the same idea of Piaf, so on the set, we understood each other without speaking. We knew when the character was there and when it was not. Sometimes there wasn’t the magical [element] that we were looking for, and when the magic was not there, we knew. So we didn’t have to speak so much. It’s very interesting — without words you can say more than with them.
How did you approach the process of physically transforming yourself into Piaf? For the entire character — and [the character is] actually three persons: Edith Piaf, the character Olivier created and me — I decided to have a very specific way of working. I did not want to do an imitation. And I did not want to experience that voice and the way she moved before being on the set. I wanted to build it in me. It’s an abstract thing — I don’t know how to describe the inner work I did. It was not like a classical [approach], which would have been, for example, to rehearse some scenes from the movie while trying to find the right voice. I would say that I prepared the framework — I learned everything, I felt everything — but it’s more than that. It’s that thing that I can’t explain, but I wanted to be surprised every day. That’s why I did not want to rehearse, to pour in concrete all those things and then arrive on the set. I knew what I wanted to do, but I did not want to experience it before [shooting]. That would have been hell. It was a risky way to work. One week before I went on the set, I was like, Oh my god, maybe it was not the right way… I don’t know what’s going to happen! But then I would read the script and [think], Okay, I know it, it can work. Or, when I did the costume test, I felt something. So I stopped and told myself, Okay, if you feel something, it should work. And the first time [the character’s] voice and behavior came out of me was on the set the first day.
You didn’t perform all the elements of the character until the first day of shooting? Yes, [the shooting] was like the mayonnaise! And the happiness was there immediately.
How did you deal with the challenge of playing someone much smaller than you? Ah, it was little tricks we faked all the time. All the other actors were in high heels. Each time I could play without my shoes, I took them off. It’s very technical, but it’s also just finding the place in you that you can make smaller. And maybe it was weird, but when you really believe that you are small, then somehow you look smaller.
What do you personally share with Piaf? The passion for my work, but [mine is] a passion that won’t destroy me. I wouldn’t be able to ask for morphine shots to do concerts! I wouldn’t do that. But yes — the passion of telling stories and taking things as far as they can go.