Marion Cotillard won the best actress Academy Award in 2007 for her performance as the iconic chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. It's highly likely that Cotillard, who has managed to work both sides of the Atlantic - in her native France and in Hollywood - will be nominated again in January, for her work in an altogether different sort of French film, Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone.
As a Marineland whale trainer who experiences a catastrophic accident, leaving her a double amputee, Cotillard brings riveting emotional authenticity to the sort of role that is easy to overplay, to sentimentalize. There isn't an ounce of sentiment in Cotillard's portrait.
Rust and Bone, a gritty love story, also stars Matthias Schoenaerts as a drifter with a little boy and some fierce boxing skills. The film opens tomorrow at the Ritz Five and Rave Motion Pictures/NJ. It has shown up on scores of year-end Top 10 lists, and has garnered Cotillard Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations.
"When I began preparing for the movie, I started to watch videos of amputated people, but then I realized very quickly that I shouldn't do that," Cotillard says via phone from New York. "For my character, Stéphanie, it has just happened in her life - it would have been different if she had been amputated for 10 years or something, my work would have been totally different. But because the accident has just happened, I thought I would experience what it's like to move with no legs - that I would just experience it with her, if you know what I mean."
During the shoot, in the scenes when Stéphanie is limbless, without the prosthetics her character eventually receives, the actress wore green socks so her lower legs and feet could be digitally erased. The result is haunting - and hauntingly realistic.
"The first time I saw the finished film, I was blown away by what they did; it was really amazing," Cotillard says. "The people we worked with were really talented and they were very fast, very discreet on set, and the technical aspects never got in our way. . . . They made our jobs so easy."
For Cotillard, Rust and Bone is a story about a woman and a man who have avoided the truth in their lives.
"Before the accident, she's a very cold person, she's struggling with herself, she's struggling with her life, she's not even searching for a reason to live - she's just kind of an empty shell," the actress explains. "And then after the accident, she really hits the bottom. And when you hit bottom, you have two options. The first is to give up, and the second one is to face yourself."
It takes her a while, but Stéphanie chooses option No. 2. And Schoenaerts' character, Ali, similarly learns to face himself - and the violence that has defined his life - through her.
"When you go through such a dramatic accident, you can realize that you're alive in a different, more heightened way," Cotillard ventures. "And all the violence she would provoke before her accident was an attempt to feel that she was alive.
"But then with what happens, she's able to turn violence into something very powerful, that's going to open doors for her, opening the door to life.
"And then, because of that, love happens."
Cotillard lives with the French actor and filmmaker Guillaume Canet, of Take No One fame. The couple have a baby boy. This spring, they were based in New York, where he directed and she starred in - with Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, and Cotillard's Rust and Bone partner, Schoenaerts - Blood Ties, a crime thriller set in the 1970s. Cotillard also shot Nightingale, a James Gray film with Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix, in New York this year. It is set during the Roaring Twenties.
In La Vie en Rose, Piaf's life story spans six decades, beginning in 1915.
"I'm trying to cover the whole 20th century," Cotillard says with a laugh. "Bring on the '80s!"