An Actress Who Charms America Like Signoret and Others Never Could

France's Marion Cotillard is unrivaled at playing unpretentious women who show resilience but also fragility as they cope with hardship.

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Marion Cotillard in a scene from the 2014 film "Two Days, One Night." Credit: AP

Marion Cotillard made cinema history in 2008 by becoming the first French woman to win an Academy Award for best actress in a French-language film. Two other actresses of French origin, Claudette Colbert and Simone Signoret, preceded her as Oscar winners.

Although Colbert was born in France, she arrived in the United States at the age of 3 and went on to win an Academy Award for her performance in “It Happened One Night” (1934). Signoret won an Oscar for her performance in “Room at the Top,” a 1959 British film. Cotillard won for portraying diva Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose” (1937).

While her performance was highly impressive, it’s not my favorite Cotillard role. The portrayal of a famous person demands a measure of impersonation that, even if it works, partly disguises the essence of the actor playing that person. In Cotillard’s case, the disguise is a loss, since her power stems from demonstrating her personality and cinematic presence, which are honest, simple, modest and human.

Cotillard, 38, became famous in the late 1990s. The star of many films, she’s the best French actress of her generation. She’s especially good when portraying “simple women” of unpretentious femininity who show resilience but also fragility as they cope with hardship, whether physical, economic or existential. Proof of this is her performance in the 2014 Belgian film “Two Days, One Night,” directed by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It reached Israeli theaters this month.

In the film, Cotillard plays Sandra, a married woman with two children who works in a small factory that produces solar panels. Sandra’s 15 coworkers have been given the option to receive a 1,000-euro bonus at the price of Sandra’s dismissal.

On the factory floor 

Sandra is the candidate for dismissal because she suffers from depression that hinders her work. In a poll of factory workers between Sandra and the bonus, Sandra loses. But her friend persuades the owner to conduct a secret ballot untainted by pressure from the plant’s managers. Sandra, with encouragement from her husband (played by Fabrizio Rongione), has two days and one night to convince her coworkers to vote for her.

This is no easy task for Sandra, not only because of her nonconfrontational personality, but also because she understands her colleagues who voted against her. If she were in their place she would do the same.

The power, fairness and beauty of “Two Days, One Night” stems from the directors’ awareness of this conflict. As the film accompanies Sandra on her campaign from one coworker to the next, it doesn’t turn her into a victim. And it doesn’t turn those who vote against her into the bad guys.

Without being judgmental, the Dardenne brothers let us understand the film’s characters and the socioeconomic reality depicted through them — a reality whose difficulties translate into moral dilemmas.

The film would work even without Cotillard’s performance (this is the first time the Dardenne brothers cast a well-known actress), but Cotillard’s contribution deepens the film and gives it tenderness. Cotillard is a kind of successor in French cinema to Isabelle Huppert; their expressive mouths and beautiful eyes (a la Bette Davis and Susan Sarandon) beam human honesty and existential longing interspersed with melancholy.

Bigger than Deneuve and Bardot

Cotillard came into our awareness gradually. In 2005 she won a Cesar Award for best supporting actress for her performance in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement,” which starred Audrey Tautou (a much less powerful actress than Cotillard). I didn’t pay much attention to Cotillard until her role as Edith Piaf; many of the French films in which she appeared weren’t shown in Israel. Even when she appeared alongside Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year,” I never guessed she would become my favorite French actress.

Cotillard’s performance in Scott’s failed film displays another unique character trait — an ability to perform in both French and American films. No French actress has done that so well.

Jeanne Moreau, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve and even Brigitte Bardot tried, but their Hollywood careers never took off, even though some of their American films weren’t bad at all. Yet Cotillard has appeared in top-notch films such as Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Her performance in Rob Marshall’s musical “Nine,” based on Federico Fellini’s “8½,” was the only point of light in that film.

Her best performances have been in French films such as “Little White Lies,” directed by actor and director Guillaume Canet, her partner and the father of her son. Another was “Rust and Bone” by Jacques Audiard, in which she played a trainer of killer whales who suffers a serious accident.

Her next films are intriguing. They include a version of “Macbeth” directed by Justin Kurzel, in which she plays Lady Macbeth alongside Michael Fassbender (an interesting exception from her best roles), and an animated version of “The Little Prince” in which she provides the voice of the rose.

In the meantime, we can enjoy her precise, tender and moving performance in “Two Days, One Night,” which did not win an award for her at the latest Cannes Film Festival, where it lost in a bid for the Palme d’Or. Cotillard has deepened my appreciation for her and increased my expectations of her next films.

Marion Cotillard at the Cannes Film Festival, May 20, 2014.

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