At the 80th Academy Award ceremony in 2008, the nominations for Best Actress included Cate Blanchett, Julie Christie, Laura Linney, and Ellen Page; all actresses that American audiences were relatively familiar with.
But when Forest Whitaker tore open the famous white envelope and called out “And the Oscar goes to…Marion Cotillard!” many viewers at home likely hesitated with their applause.
She had come out of nowhere. Her film, La Vie en Rose, had not been widely released in America. Where it was shown — art houses, independent cinemas, and film festivals — it was screened in French. Who was this young French woman with the seemingly impossible-to-pronounce name?
Marion Cotillard dominated the Best Actress category that season, winning a César, the BAFTA, and the Golden Globe awards. The Oscar was well deserved. It was also the first time that the best actress Oscar was awarded for a French language film. Cotillard, who was 33 at the time, had played Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (La môme in France), the French singer who famously didn’t regrette anything.
Yet as she took to the stage and gave her short but passionate acceptance speech in nervous English, overcome with emotion, the world instantly fell in love with her.
Cotillard had done more than portray this woman — she had transformed herself into Piaf, throwing herself full-on into the troubled life of the famous chanteuse. It was a physical transformation as well as an emotional one; Cotillard shaved her eyebrows, spoke in Piaf’s gravelly voice, and walked hunched over with a cane in the scenes of Piaf’s later life. For this performance she received rave reviews everywhere; critics hailed her portrayal as one of the best in cinema history, and predicted her rise to international fame.
More than a pretty face
However unknown she might have been in the US, Cotillard had been acting steadily in France for many years, earning a César Best Actress nomination (equivalent of an Oscar nomination) for her role in Les jolies choses.
But acting had not been the only thing on her mind.
Cotillard, from a young age, has been an environmentalist. She was involved with Greenpeace France, allowing them to use her apartment in order to test chemicals in their study on domestic pollution in 2003.
The same year, she was up for a role in Tim Burton’s Big Fish. It would be the first American film that Cotillard would act in, but she was torn. Feeling doubtful about winning the role and conflicted about her acting career, she made a decision that if she didn’t win the part in Big Fish she would stop acting and begin working with Greenpeace.
But…she won the role.
Big Fish was very important to Cotillard’s career and contributed to her becoming more known in the States. It was a high budget film also starring big name actors Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor and Jessica Lange.
Cotillard decided to continue acting, but didn’t leave Greenpeace behind. Her acting career became increasingly more demanding, and after the huge success of La Vie en Rose more and more parts were offered to her, including several more American films such as Public Enemies, Nine, Inception, and Midnight in Paris.
Though her fame was on the rise, she maintained her work with Greenpeace, proving that there can be good uses to come out of celebrity, particularly when the famous person is truly passionate about his or her work, as is Cotillard.
No shrinking violet, she says what she thinks in a straightforward manner, cutting through some of the contradictions in the environmental movement. When asked what she thought of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, Cotillard answered,
They did a book of that movie [and] it’s not made with recycled paper! That I really don’t understand! It’s a detail I would see because I’m so into it forever. I really appreciated Al Gore from the beginning, and I think he has something in his hands which is very important. So I will support him, even if his book is not made with recycled paper.
It was natural, then, when she returned to Greenpeace and became their celebrity spokeswoman. It was a position in which she could be both an actress and an environmentalist, using her fame to bring attention to important issues. On why she became a spokesperson for the organization, Cotillard said in her charmingly unique use of English,
Because I think that my brain is functioning quite well. Really. Respecting people and things is something normal for me, that’s normality. Spending money to earn money, spoiling the planet, is something I can’t understand.
Marion Cotillard in the Congo
In 2010, Cotillard participated in a 7-part documentary with Greenpeace France in which she visited the tropical rainforests in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The documentary was filmed in Oshwé, an territory of the Congo slightly larger than Belgium. The series follows her journey with Grégoire, who works for Greenpeace France, through the forests within the territory whose wood is being logged illegally and sold in Europe.
The mission of the Congolese Greenpeace workers is to enforce the law, ensure that industrial logging companies respect the rights of the community, and only cut wood from authorized areas. However, Grégoire and Cotillard soon discover that it’s not as simple as it seems.
The area is severely under-funded by the state, with workers waiting as long as a year to receive what are supposed to be monthly salaries, and insufficient vehicles with which to do their jobs.
Cotillard and Grégoire spend their days traveling along the river with their guides to different logging sites, particularly to smaller areas used by artisanal workers, who are cutting down wood without any kind of supervision or control. In fact, in Europe, there’s no law that requires full traceability of timber, so importing illegally logged timber is common. Grégoire explains that, “That’s why in the law currently debated at the European level, it is vital to introduce the traceability principle.”
They visit one site in particular where the wood extracted, which causes severe deforestation in the area, is then sold in Switzerland. Cotillard seems especially struck with the fact that when an ancient tree is cut down, only two or three meters are actually used — the rest of the tree is simply left in the forest to decay.
Cotillard did not simply lend her image to Greenpeace. Being environmentally conscious has been a lifelong occupation for her, and it’s clear that she’ll continue to support and combat global warming and deforestation even when she’s not filming with Greenpeace.
While watching this series, it’s evident that the actress holds a real passion and knowledge about the subject. She asks intelligent questions and expresses a visible desire to intervene with the communities affected by deforestation. As she interacts with the inhabitants of Oshwé and her guides, uses her camera to film and take photographs of what she sees, and dances and plays with the local children, it’s almost hard to remember that she’s an award-winning actress who has graced many red carpets and magazine covers. You can see the series here:
On her role as an activist Cotillard says,
I’m very happy with what’s happening now and how the awareness is spreading, because ten years ago my mind-set wasn’t really normal for most people. I sounded like a crazy person talking about the environment. People saw me as a hippie who wanted to make my own cheese and live with animals in a house without electricity. It’s a paradox to be an actress, living in the city, taking planes all the time, trying to find the right balance in this life, which is not so eco-friendly, and still try to respect the environment.
Marion Cotillard is already getting Oscar buzz for her new movie, Rust & Bone, which will be in theaters in November. Meantime her environmental work goes on.
–Anwyn Cook, Transition Voice