In the film Rust and Bone, which is in theaters this month, Marion Cotillard plays Stephanie, an orca trainer who loses her legs in a freak accident during a performance at Marineland in Antibes, France. While she’s recuperating, Stephanie forms a symbiotic bond with a would-be boxer, played with brutality and grace by Matthias Schoenaerts. The unlikely pair embarks on a kind of sexual friendship—a very modern romance—that proves more enduring than either expects.
Cotillard is stunning in the role. She goes from tough to vulnerable to broken to exhilarated and back again. When Rust and Bone, directed by Jacques Audiard, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the prevailing consensus was that Cotillard would win the best-actress prize. She had never won an award at Cannes, and as one of the few French actresses ever to receive a best-actress Oscar (for her role as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose), Cotillard is the reigning female star of Gallic cinema. Perhaps her fame hurt her with the jury—when the award was split between two worthy Romanian women who portray tragic novitiates in Beyond the Hills, cries of shock echoed up and down Cannes’s Croisette.
“I think I may have been on too many magazine covers,” Cotillard, 37, told me in New York, three months after the festival. “In France, they like the underdog.” She shrugged—other countries would embrace her work in Rust and Bone. “In America, they appreciate success.” Cotillard was in town for the premiere of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, in which she plays a mysteriously alluring woman. Perhaps it’s her large haunting blue eyes or her innate elegance, but Cotillard always looks like she’s harboring a deep secret. That tantalizing sense of privacy is what makes her characters so intriguing. “It is much easier for me to understand something vast and complex than something light and uncomplicated,” Cotillard explained. “Perhaps that makes me very French.” She laughed. “Tragedy is almost always interesting to me.”
Five years ago, when Cotillard first spent a considerable chunk of time in New York, she could barely speak English. She was in America to promote La Vie en Rose, and she submerged herself in the language, taking Berlitz classes for four weeks. She had tried before: In 2004, she completed an intense 18-day course so she could work in American films. Tim Burton cast her in Big Fish as a pregnant French wife, and Ridley Scott chose Cotillard as the object of desire in A Good Year, his ode to the south of France. Neither of those films sparked much interest in Hollywood, but they did change Cotillard’s profile in her native country. “I had costarred in three commercial hits in France,” Cotillard told me in 2007. “To have your place in French cinema, you have to prove that you are a serious actress in a noncommercial film. When Tim Burton picked me, French critics were impressed. In France, they see Tim Burton as a kind of film doctor, and the movie was not successful—so voilà!”