The many faces of Marion

Piaf actress on Ismael's Ghosts, freedom, family and #MeToo

by Richard Mowe

Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismaël’s Ghosts
Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismaël’s Ghosts Photo: Unifrance
As she propels herself towards a chair in a Parisian hotel de luxe, French star Marion Cotillard appears a bit flustered. “What film are we here to talk about?” she says looking perplexed.

Given her prodigious output it is easy to understand why she might be confused. Just along the corridor, as part of a Unifrance junket in January, her partner the actor and director Guillaume Canet has been talking (with her) about the comedy Rock’N Roll in which they play a couple not so far removed from themselves.

We’re here, however, for a different proposition in which she re-teams with director Arnaud Desplechin for Ismael’s Ghosts (previously they had worked on 1996’s My Sex Life Or How I Got into an Argument). In the film - the director's cut of which is out in the UK this week - she plays the former lover of a filmmaker (played by Mathieu Amalric) who returns mysteriously just as he is about to embark on the shoot of a new film. His current girlfriend is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, setting the scene for a very Gallic triangular relationship.

Marion Cotillard: 'I try simply to surrender to the character. The first step of preparation is to empty my brain and then fill it up again with information about the person I am playing'
Marion Cotillard: 'I try simply to surrender to the character. The first step of preparation is to empty my brain and then fill it up again with information about the person I am playing' Photo: Richard Mowe
Cotillard - who won an Oscar for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose and then continued her transatlantic trajectory with Robert Zemeckis on Allied, Christopher Nolan on Inception, Justin Kurzel for Macbeth, and Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris - speaks in English with an American accent tinged with French.

When Desplechin came calling with his project Cotillard, 42, had just finished six films in a row. She said: “I had promised myself not to do any more. But this one was different: especially because of the other actors - Charlotte, whom I have admired since I was a kid, and Mathieu is also very special. At first I did not get my character but then Arnaud started to talk to me about her. There will always be a mystery about someone who disappears for 20 years, but when she returns to brings back life to her father, to her husband’s life, and even to the life of the couple.”

Cotillard says she does not utilise any particular techniques in her craft - “I try simply to surrender to the character. The first step of preparation is to empty my brain and then fill it up again with information about the person I am playing. I will never use my real life to build a character - they are two separate things.”

She did remember, however, at the start of her career that the idea of leaving everything behind and starting a new life with different people became very appealing. “I wanted to be in a place where I would not be shadowed by the image people have of me and their expectations. I wanted to be free of myself because at the time I could not find a way to like or love myself. I remembered this - and I understood how could you could want to make a break.”

She accepted the role then very quickly after that she found out she was pregnant [with daughter Louise now sister to seven-year-old Marcel). “Arnaud said that the character carried life inside her so when I started work on the role I had life inside myself. That was it - I did not need more than the fact that I was actually carrying life myself.”

Cotillard concedes that her most memorable screen roles have taken her to some dark places – as the trainer of killer whales in Rust And Bone (2012) who loses both legs in an accident; as the sacked factory worker in Two Days, One Night (2014) who must beg each of her colleagues to forfeit their annual bonus so that she might get her job back; and most recently as an alcoholic mother abandoning her daughter in Angel Face (screened in Un Certain Regard at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival), directed by debut film-maker Vanessa Filho.

Marion Cotillard in Ismael's Ghosts
Marion Cotillard in Ismael's Ghosts Photo: Unifrance
“The director was so intense and stepping into it I thought here I go again. Can’t you just choose something that is an easier thing to do. Comedy is not my comfort zone, but at least it would make a change to play someone who is just happy. I am a happy person and now today I have found a lot of joy and love. So maybe I need to explore things that I do not know and things that I would never experience. I would never abandon my kids - never. I will never know what it is to do that. Playing this particular role I understand her and how you can be overwhelmed by life.

“I understand people who can leave the house and leave the kids behind. There is a commitment to be a parent and a mother and it takes so much from you that some people just cannot take it because we live in a crazy world. I appreciate that life’s turmoils, both external and inner unrest, may prompt a woman to leave, and therefore abandon her child. What is harder for me to understand, on the other hand, is that one can leave and not come back. Life is literally turned upside down by the arrival of a child – the responsibilities are so enormous and one senses that freedom takes on another meaning. Still I can understand that a mother can snap and feel the need to escape,” she said.

Just at the moment her international career was taking off Cotillard and Canet announced the birth of their son. She added: “I am not very good at planning but I believe that things happen when the need to, and when they have to.”

In her new film Angel Face Marion Cotillard plays an alcoholic mother who abandons her daughter. Cotillard: 'The director was so intense and stepping into it I thought, 'Here I go again''
In her new film Angel Face Marion Cotillard plays an alcoholic mother who abandons her daughter. Cotillard: 'The director was so intense and stepping into it I thought, 'Here I go again'' Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
When she was a teenager her family moved to live in Orléans where she was a student at the city’s Conservatoire. Eventually she picked up some minor roles - in an American TV series of Highlander and a opposite the veteran actress Anna Karina in a film for French television. The casting of her in a big budget commercial comedy - the first of the Taxi series written by Luc Besson - assured her progression.

She continues to be an outspoken advocate of environmental issues and weighted in to the post-Weinstein debate, confirming her support for the Times Up / #MeToo initiatives. “What is happening is a true revolution that was much needed. I don’t want to give any details but things happened to me several times. I had to work, though, and I had to heal. I applaud the courage of the women who have been pushed forward by these movements - and not just actors but women in all walks of life. I hope that one day we can reconcile the feminine and the masculine parts of the world.”

The director's cut of Ismael’s Ghost is released in selected cinemas in the UK and Spain from tomorrow (June 1). Richard Mowe interview Marion Cotillard at the Unifrance Rendez-vous with French Cinema in January at the Intercontinental Grand Hotel, Paris.

Arnaud Desplechin and Mathieu Amalric talk about Ismael's Ghosts.

Arnaud Desplechin talks about never abandoning Vertigo, Jacques Lacan's Seminar VIII in Tel Aviv and loving someone like an apple.

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