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From ‘The Immigrant’ to ‘Two Days, One Night’: Oscar Nominee Marion Cotillard’s Amazing Year

From 'The Immigrant' to 'Two Days, One Night': Oscar Nominee Marion Cotillard's Amazing Year

Critics’ groups threw their weight behind Marion Cotillard, and it paid off in a most pleasantly unexpected way on Thursday morning. The “Two Days, One Night” Oscar nominee also deserves accolades for her ravishing, critically acclaimed performance in the overwhelming “The Immigrant” as a Polish woman who comes to America, arms full of dreams, only to discover how swiftly such dreams sour. Cotillard not only exhibits terrific command of the language (to these ears, anyway) but goes for broke in a nuanced, tender but knowingly spiky portrayal.

But The Weinstein Company, which snagged the film from the 2013 Cannes competition slate before dumping it discreetly in a smattering of theaters a year later, refuses to position the film in the awards derby even though it was a hit overseas. Why? “There are a lot of things I cannot really talk about,” Cotillard told me at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where we sat down to discuss her amazing year.

From “The Yards” to “Two Lovers,” distributors have tangled with director James Gray, who is allegedly fussy about maintaining final cut of his lush, intensely formally controlled features. But with “The Immigrant,” Weinstein had one of the best films of the year on his hands and he dropped it. It used to be that Harvey was more willing to throw money at a movie and convince consumers to sample it. Those days are gone. 

Variety’s Scott Foundas did some excellent reporting back in December to address the supposed editing room tensions between Weinstein and Gray, quelled somewhat by Weinstein’s apparent enthusiasm for the film (“it’s everyone’s story”). And at the film’s New York premiere, Foundas noted that “the Oscar-winning French superstar spent much of the evening locked in intense conversation with Weinstein.” Hm. In an Indiewire interview, “Immigrant” co-star Jeremy Renner also bristled at the query of what went down here.

Cotillard, though giddy to discuss her Oscar-nominated collaboration with the Dardenne brothers, remains curiously coy about what went wrong with “The Immigrant.” But when prompted, she hung her head, sighed and shared my grief over this masterful movie, which has now won two prizes from the New York Film Critics, Best Cinematography and Best Actress (for both “Two Days” and “The Immigrant”). It’s a multiple Indie Spirit nominee. Cotillard has collected a bevy of prizes for her performance in “Two Days,” including a European Film Award, a Satellite Award nomination, a Critics’ Choice Movie Award nomination and Best Actress honors from the New York Film Critics Online and Boston Society of Film Critics.

Though a two-time César award winner, four-time SAG nominee and perennial critics’ golden child, Cotillard suffered Oscar neglect since she polished her English to win Best Actress for 2007’s “La Vie En Rose,” in which she threw herself under the skin of Edith Piaf. A competitive Best Actress year in 2012 edged Cotillard out of a nomination for little-seen “Rust and Bone,” where she played a skillful orca trainer turned weathered amputee for director Jacques Audiard. She has wowed in French-language “A Very Long Engagement” and her partner Guillame Canet’s “Blood Ties” and also starred in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies,” Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” and Rob Marshall’s disappointing musical “Nine” (which might’ve nabbed Cotillard her second nomination had TWC gone Supporting). She works with smart directors on edgy, arthouse passion projects while doing the Hollywood dance now and then. Finally, she now has her second Oscar nomination.

You star in two films I love this year, “Two Days, One Night” and “The Immigrant.” Having just seen “Two Days,” I admire the way that, though Sandra has to go through this cycle of asking each of her coworkers to forego a bonus in favor of her job security, each time you change your delivery. There are subtle modulations. How did you achieve that?

The first time I read the script I was a little anxious, not anxious, but I saw this challenge of having to say the same thing to all those people and I knew that it would be a very interesting experience to try to find a slightly different state each time even though she’s asking the same thing, with almost the same words. That almost was very interesting the second time and the third time I read the script and I started to see the little differences in the dialogue and all those little differences, because the Dardennes are amazing writers, gave a slightly different energy to the scene. So I started working on all those differences.

What kinds of differences?

I used those differences to build something different each time. The up and down of her energy, her hope. When you start something that is going to be hard, and challenging, and you dive into this experience and sometimes you just do what you have to do, but sometimes your brain comes back in the game, sending you messages of hope, or messages of questioning what you’re doing and so suddenly you won’t believe anymore that what you do is the right thing. This line of up and down was written in the script but I needed to emphasize what was already there.

What is the particular challenge of working with the Dardennes? As a French speaking actress, you’ve surely aspired to work them for a long time.

I didn’t allow myself to dream of working with them, because I didn’t even think it was possible. For me, it was just impossible.

Why?

First of all, they work with, most of the time, Belgian actors and also actors with a different experience; my experience, as an actress, took me to a lot of worlds and directors’ visions.


Because you’ve done Hollywood films?

Even my experience in France, they usually work with people nobody knows. So they can really fit in their world. 

And to the rest of the world they seem like non-actors, as in “L’enfant” and “The Kid with the Bike.” I don’t recognize them but they’re all terrific.

I was very surprised. That was one of my best experiences, if not the best, that I’ve had on the set with directors and the relationship that I’ve had with them, and how they took me very deeply into their dynamic. I really felt that I was part of the rhythm of the movie, and the construction of the rhythm of the movie. They’re very demanding. And also, we did only sequence shots, so we did a lot of takes, sometimes up to 100. It put my imagination in a place where it had to be pushed very far. I had created her past life — not her past life, not like she was a dragon in a past life and a rat and Rita Hayworth.  Okay, but I needed to understand who this person is because we don’t have much information about her besides her being a mother of two kids and a worker in a factory and just recovering from a depression. We don’t know more about her, you know? And I needed to.

And a lot of the shifts in her character and in her emotions have to be written on your face rather than through dialogue.

I needed to know why and how she got through this depression, when it started, how it affected her kids and her husband and the people she loves. Who are her parents? Does she have siblings? How is she when she’s in a good place and when she has fun? I needed to write all of this, and I also needed to write scenes that I would use that would be my material to use in order to reach some emotions. When you have an emotional scene and let’s say you have two characters, and they’re talking about something that is really moving, then the emotion in how you build that is easier than having a regular conversation and suddenly burst into tears. It has to come from somewhere.

I needed to create the little machine and I needed to know which button to push to get [the crying] out like it is in the movie. And the fact that I was part of the rhythm of the scene and the Dardenne brothers being demanding, and I had a scene I get out of bed, put my shoes on and they wanted me to burst into tears when I put my second shoe on. This is super precise. And so I needed the ignition at the right moment. And sometimes it would come a little before, and a little after, or a little after, and they would come after the take and they would tell me, “It was great, but if it can happen really when you put your foot in the shoes, in the right shoe.” So I was like, “Yeah that’s what I’m trying to do!” After 20 takes, the story I had in my mind to fit in their rhythm didn’t work anymore. So I would use another story I had written, and then another and then another and after 50 takes, sometimes I would be out of dramatic scenes in my mind that would ignite this emotion at the right moment. I needed to create more things. My imagination was on all the time.

So there’s this whole prequel movie to “Two Days, One Night” living inside your head.

Well it’s super dramatic. Oh my god. I wouldn’t want to see it. It’s too dramatic.

Let’s talk about “The Immigrant.” That’s one of my most favorite movies this year. People were not talking about this movie. You’re amazing in it. You are stunning. Are you disappointed by the short shrift it has received?

It’s painful when you’ve worked on a movie with a director—I’m a huge fan of James Gray, I think he’s a true artist, and I know what it is to, I don’t know what it is from the inside, but I share my life with a director and I know what it is for a director to put three years of their life into a project. This project was very personal to James Gray. So many people working on this project, myself working a lot because of the Polish accent in American English and the Polish itself, which is a language that is, like, super hard to learn. Not that I learned to speak Polish. I had 20 pages of Polish, which was a lot. And the movie doesn’t encounter the audience, it’s painful.

Why did that happen? Why did TWC drop the ball on this one?

Well. [Pauses] There a lot of things that I cannot really talk about.

I know. I thought I would try.

It’s not an easy movie, and today, I don’t know how to answer this question. When I do a movie and I think the movie’s really bad (and I would never answer a journalist “Well it didn’t work because the movie was really bad!”), it’s easy to answer a question of “Why do you think it didn’t work?” When it’s a movie I think is a beautiful movie, it’s hard to answer that question.

I love Ava. She is one of the great characters. At first she seems frail, and then as soon as she pricks her finger and smears the blood on her lips, I sat up in my chair. She’s knowing.

I loved being her. I loved her strength, and the fact that she is this little animal thrown into a world that she doesn’t know because she comes from horror in her country. It’s a tangible horror.

This should’ve been an Oscar contender.

Well you need money to do that, and we won’t have this money!

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