Updated: Apr 14, 2021
By: Craig Nova
Marion Cotillard is an attractive actress, but the quality that makes her beautiful is not her appearance so much as the exquisite truths she is able to bring to the characters she portrays. It is important, I think, to say what I mean by “exquisite truths,” or to give some examples of them. Cotillard is a living, breathing example of the romantic notion that “truth is beauty,” although in this case it is not romantic so much as keenly gritty, actual, heart breaking and more than anything else, illuminating.
First, I’d like to say that while Cotillard’s films made in English, such as Public Enemies, show some of her range as an actress, and while they are good, I think that those in French show those elements that are so beautiful and so compelling. Michael Mann was a great director, but I think for mysterious reasons Cotillard’s performance, in French, are the most illuminating.
I am not sure why this is the case. Still, some suggestions come to mind. First, French is Cotillard’s first language, and in it she seems to be able to use the language as though it is invisible, as is the case with anyone who is speaking their native language. And then it may be the nature of French film making and that the directors, writers, production designers and others involved are more empathetic, or more comforting for her. I don’t know what the answer is, but it seems to me that the French films show her at her best.
A good example is Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os). Cotillard plays a woman who has been attacked by one of the Orca whales she trains, and has lost her legs. Stéphanie, the character’s name, takes up with a drifter, a street boxer, perfectly played by Matthias Schoenaerts.
So, what are those moments Cotillard is able to produce that are beautiful, in the terms I am using here? What are the scenes that show this? And more importantly, how does she do it?
The first item, I think, is a variety of sincerity. It is not so much that that Cotillard seems sincere, but that the character she is playing is sincere, and this sincerity is presented in way that allows the viewer to feel that the character can be understood, or Cotillard allows us to feel the turmoil, the interior life of a human being. In fact, this truth is so real that it is as though we have known the character all our lives, and that we recognize her.
For instance, we have a scene in which Stéphanie meets Ali, the Schoenaerts character, in a café on the beach after a night in which Stéphanie and Ali have gone to a dance club. They have been having a variety of affair. Stéphanie has artificial legs, and the night before she didn’t want to dance with Ali in the club. He dances with a young woman and then takes her home, leaving Stepahine by herself.
In the morning, they meet at the café. Ali is half asleep. Stephanie sits opposite him.
It is important to mention, I think, the makeup, the costume, and the lighting for Cotillard. She plays this role with hair that looks greasy, unwashed, and her skin often looks gray, or particularly gray around the eyes. She is obviously, by her looks, suspended in a profoundly difficult moment, at once keenly vulnerable (given what has happened to her legs and the implications for how she lives) and uncertain.
Ali has been frank, and wonderfully open with her, just as he has been sexually available to her, and gently, too, in the beginning so that she can discover if “it still works.”
So, they have had a variety of affair, or some method of being together. She does not want to let him kiss her in the beginning, but it is obvious that the vitality of what she has been doing with him is a sort of life line, a beginning after what has happened to her.
Now, though, he has left her in a night club, gone off with another woman, and the two have to confront what has happened.
She says, “What am I to you?”
Of course the script is set up for this scene to play, but here is where the beauty comes in. When she asks this question, that sincerity, in her eyes, in her piercing glance isn’t so much an accusation, as a way of letting us feel Stéphanie’s isolation, her loneliness, how much she feels betrayed, or even confused that she should or could feel betrayed… Her presence suggests all these things, and something more, which is impossible to sum up, since it is at the heart of what a human being is.
So, the beauty is this. Cotillard gets so close to everything that can be said, and then goes beyond, into those things that can’t be said but are still known.
Part of how she conveys this is a control of her face. The way in which she never blinks, or the lifting of a brow for emphasis, or some sadness that is right at the heart of asking the truth.
And, to show what her range is, I’d like to compare this scene and one after Ali and Stéphanie have gotten into bed for the first time. This is set up in a way that is a perfect expression of Camus’ essay on Kafka, in which Camus says that Kafka’s characters are so powerful because their strange circumstances are presented as perfectly ordinary.
Here, in a conversation before getting into bed, Stéphanie says in so many words, that she still has desires, although she doesn’t even know “if it still works.”
In her apartment, Ali says, “Do you want to fuck?”
Cotillard’s expression here is a perfection of surprise, embarrassment, and an odd realization of desire…or something so delicate it is hard to express.
Ali says, “So you can see it if still works.”
We have the scene in the bedroom. Then Stéphanie comes into the kitchen, in her wheel chair. Here, as a matter of acting, or of that beauty, Cotillard looks at once surprised, pleased, a little confused, amazed, and…still thinking it over. But the expression is profoundly different from the one in the café after she has been abandoned in a night club. Here, after this first sexual moment, she looks as though she is tasting something sweet, or has been given a lovely surprise. And, again, more than that. Something that can’t be said but is still known.
Another example of this skill, or beauty, or whatever this quality is, comes in another scene.
Ali has been having regular for-pay, street fights, in some location in southern France where people come to bet. It is a bare knuckle, tough, violent variety of boxing. Usually, he has been successful, but on this occasion it looks as though he is going to get killed.
Stéphanie comes along to these fights, although she is the only woman allowed. She is watching Ali from the car. Her expression isn’t one of alarm, so much as something else, a decision that she is going to do something about this. But it is another variety of the use of her eyes, her brows, her unblinking consideration.
She gets out of the van on her prosthetic legs. Begins to step toward Ali to stop it. Her expression is again one of those complicated items, and while it is impossible to say what it is, the feeling is of some large, important, keen part of being human. It has to do with morality, loyalty, consideration, and the need to take action. And something else, too, although I can’t say it, since it is too big for words. And it is this scale that makes the work of Marion Cotillard so lovely and so important.
In this scene, just as she is about to step in, Ali gets the upper hand, and Cotillard gives us another emotional tone, obviously glad that Ali isn’t going to get killed, but with complicated feelings about violence.
It is this sincerity, this intensity, about those things that can be said and those that can’t that puts Cotillard into a realm of her own. Many actresses and actors play themselves or a variety of themselves over and over again, but not Cotillard. It is that truthful sincerity, that lack of vanity and any other concern that would diminish a performance, that she brings to her roles.
She gets, as I say, as close to everything that can be said, and then gets a little further. It is this quality that makes her beautiful.