Marion Cotillard could easily forsake French cinema. Since getting an Oscar for her tragic portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, she’s won over a string of powerful American directors, from Steven Soderbergh (Contagion) to Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris). Christopher Nolan, who cast her as Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream-invading dead wife in Inception, wanted her to be in The Dark Knight Rises so badly that he rearranged the shooting schedule to accommodate the birth of Cotillard’s son, with actor-director Guillaume Canet.
So it’s notable that days after wrapping Dark Knight, she was on the beaches of Antibes, playing a double-amputee killer-whale trainer (yes, a double-amputee killer-whale trainer) in Jacques Audiard’s très français drama Rust & Bone.
Cotillard’s Stéphanie is an orca handler at Marineland who loses her legs when a routine she’s conducting to Katy Perry’s “Firework” goes horribly wrong. Bitter and broken, she eventually finds renewal in a steamy affair with a semi-homeless bad dad and aspiring street fighter (sensitive brute Matthias Schoenaerts). She also eventually becomes his manager.
Because of Batman-related commitments, Cotillard had a scant few days to master hand-signal commands and build a relationship with her aquatic co-stars. “I mean, I gave them some fish, and when you give them some fish they will do whatever you want them to do, basically.” Yet she vows never to return to Marineland, out of discomfort with seeing animals in captivity.
She decided not to prepare for what happened after the accident. “Stéphanie doesn’t know how it will feel to have no legs,” she says, “so I learned with her.” That meant swimming in the strong currents of the Mediterranean using only her arms. For the many sex scenes, she just acted naturalistically and trusted Audiard to remove her legs in postproduction.
She’s telling me this from the southwest of France, where she’s come to indulge in “the simplicity of living” after doing so many movies that she felt “like I was a chain worker.” Most recently, she was in New York shooting a movie about two brothers (Billy Crudup and Clive Owen) fighting across the lines of organized crime in seventies-era Brooklyn. It’s the second time Cotillard has been directed by Canet, “my man,” following Little White Lies. She describes what she’s seeing: “The sun is going to bed, and it’s all pink now. We’re on a peninsula. On one side there is the ocean, and on the other the bay. We have our feet in the water. It smells of pine trees and oysters. I can see myself being wrinkled and old here … I’m in Heaven. Basically I’m calling you from Heaven.”