Interview with Marion Cotillard

What aroused your interest in this first feature film project?

I was going through a period when I didn’t want to read screenplays, or even work. Still, my agent called to tell me that I absolutely had to read this project because it was sublimely written, simple, powerful, and clearly one of the most beautiful screenplays he’d read these past few years: I was thus tempted and I did indeed find it wonderful. So, I asked if I could meet Vanessa, a poetic angel haunted by her subject, with the vital need to make films shining in her eyes. This is exactly what I look for in a director.

So you agreed to take part in the film.

The dates of the film shoot didn’t work for me, as they really were incompatible with already-scheduled family projects. However, Vanessa couldn’t change them. I was taking some time to make up my mind, so my agent called again to tell me that the production team needed an answer from me in order to move ahead and find financing for the film. I then decided to reread the screenplay, hoping that I would find my answer there. I opened my computer and realized that in the email to which the script was attached, there was also a mood-board, with reels of children, carnivals, and southern France, filmed by Vanessa. I saw a form of grace and something so powerful that I snapped my computer shut and called back to say yes.

How did you approach this character who ends up abandoning her daughter?

Although it seems inconceivable, I can understand that life’s turmoils, that both external and inner unrest, may prompt a woman to leave, and therefore abandon her child. What is harder for me to understand, on the other hand, is that one can leave and not come back. Life is literally turned upside down by the arrival of a child – the responsibilities are so enormous - and one senses that freedom takes on another meaning; I can understand that a mother can snap and feel the need to escape.

Marlène is not fully aware of what she’s doing...

When she leaves, she believes her daughter is big enough to manage on her own... She doesn’t realize that in her thirst for self-fulfillment, freedom and the profound wish to achieve something for herself, she’s abandoning a child who isn’t old enough to grow, develop and construct herself on her own, even though she is able to survive and function autonomously in her daily activities. When you’re 8, you need guidance and love – you need to be told to go to bed at night and be cuddled. Marlène isn’t aware of the fact that she is hurting or damaging her child – for she does love her daughter: she loves her in her own strange way.

Did you imagine her past, her personal life story?

I always need to do that. A character is the outcome of a childhood and that is always where I start; it’s my way of fleshing out the character. What was fantastic with this project was that Vanessa knew part of this woman’s life: she’d made it up and told me about it. Based on what she’d said, I added things, imagined scenes that I used at specific moments to give substance to the character. I needed to know where her mother was and, once again, what kind of childhood she’d had, for I figured that she was probably repeating a pattern, following in the footsteps of women in her family who’d gone astray. I had to dig into what had happened earlier on in her life. And when you know just a little about a character, it’s always very exciting to invent her life.

She is both radiant and dark, profoundly attached to her daughter and at the same time swallowed by an irrepressible need to escape...

She’s very immature, with no emotional anchoring besides her daughter. Because of that, she’s extremely lonely and destroys everything that has any beauty around her. I think she’s the classic pattern of a woman who thinks she doesn’t deserve the love that others have for her: she throws away her loving relationship with a wonderful man, though not fully conscious. There’s always this compelling force inside her making her feel she doesn’t deserve happiness. I told myself that, as a child, she must have been belittled at a young age and thus became convinced once she was an adult that she wasn’t worthy of love and beauty. It becomes really complicated, when this is your foundation, to be a guide and a source of infinite love for your child. This is the reason why we can’t pass judgement: her lack of love and her disregard for others find their origin quite far back in her past. If she had the ability to look, and actually see people, she would see that her daughter needs her. When she puts her in the car, she would hear her daughter cry and call out that she needs her. But she is unable to see herself this way and therefore unable to cast this kind of look on others. It’s the logic of abandonment.

She seems to have this need to seek refuge in parallel worlds, like reality TV.

While I was preparing for the film, I forced myself to watch these shows and they made me ill: we’re in realms of evasiveness and dodging, pure obscenity seeking to trigger the most violent and disconnected impulses in human beings by forcing them into situations that make no sense whatsoever. Marlène seeks refuge in this parallel universe that requires no thinking on her part: she derives an unhealthy and fleeting pleasure from it that is also extremely toxic and addictive.

She stands out from the other mothers who take their kids to school: you can’t miss her. How did you put her together, physically?

Vanessa knew quite precisely what she wanted. I just followed her guidance because we were on the same wavelength. Vanessa is someone whose world is very powerful, yet this never takes precedence over the story. And this is where the magic happens. It’s particularly remarkable as this is a first feature-length film, which is when a director can fall prey to the pitfalls of stylistic effects. But Vanessa always found the right place for her narrative while infusing it with her poetry.

How did your working with the little Ayline go?

I was confident that Vanessa would find the rare gem. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to find an 8-year-old child able to play such a role in a powerful yet natural manner. I first met Ayline when we did screen tests and I saw that look in her eyes, an intensity, a silent strength. I felt that she liked acting and that she enjoyed embodying this character. She really impressed me. She has a truly engaging personality; she is smart, and she has the soul of an artist.

What is Vanessa’s directing style?

As I said earlier, Vanessa is haunted and possessed by her characters and the story she needs to tell. She knows exactly who her characters are and therefore gives wonderful guidance. Vanessa exudes a combination of gentleness, strength and great determination. When I saw how she directed Ayline, I was mesmerized. Between them, there was an intense and intimate connection that is akin to what you’d see between a coach and a boxer, eyes locked together before hitting the ring – though replacing the violence with gentleness. Vanessa would create a sort of invisible bubble on the set, in which the two of them would be isolated, alone in the world; and then, just in the way she spoke to her, she literally entered her head and her body, and gave her instructions. It was impressive to watch. On top of having a powerful world and a wonderful sense of storytelling and photography, she is exceptional when directing her actors.

When we see you, we often think of Gena Rowlands, directed by Cassavetes. Was she a reference for you?

No, Vanessa and I never really discussed inspirations or models. Personally, my references often come from people around me. The characters I play are a mix of my friends, and people I know more or less intimately. For Marlène, I took my inspiration from three girls I know and two others I don’t personally know. This said, the women portrayed by Gena Rowlands are great figures in a realistic genre that is at the same time extremely poetic, exuding feelings that are transcended by cinema. It is true that there is a similar intensity in Vanessa’s world.

What will you take away with you from this experience?

The first steps of a wonderful director. I am lucky enough to have worked with many inspired directors and that’s what makes me tick, what makes me want to reorganize my plans and give my all to help an artist express him or herself. As a performer, this is what I love about my craft.

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