There is a moment in Rust and Bone that’s so unique and unexpected it even makes you wish Katy Perry had written “Firework” for the movie, just so it had a chance at winning the Best Original Song Oscar.
This movie is a success on so many surprising levels and the scene in question is a meditative one that focuses on former whale trainer, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) as she finds what looks like hope after a terrible accident leaves her without her legs. The moment, as unfathomably simple as it sounds, doesn’t have dialogue, isn’t exceptionally long and lacks an orthodox sense of coherence. It merely has Stephanie practice her old training commands as she sits on her wheelchair looking at the horizon. Set to Perry’s ubiquitous hit, the moment should feel less soulful, perhaps even vulgar; yet it doesn’t, instead it haunts you for weeks after you’ve seen the movie. The reason for this is of course Cotillard’s exquisitely detailed performance. In this scene, more than in any other moment in the movie, she allows her luminous face to serve as a blank screen where we can project our emotions. We feel empathy and a deep sense of connection with this woman, even if at some level we’re still fighting our mixed feelings about her. Should we like her? Are we allowed to judge her? Yes, she lost her legs in a terrible accident, but she didn’t seem like such a nice person before that. Yes, she’s looking for love after losing what once made her extremely desirable, but then again she’s still breaking bottles on guys in clubs.
On an Oscar level of Best Actress-ing, Stephanie is more akin to Marlee Matlin’s complex character in Children of a Lesser God than the saintly Maggie Fitzgerald from Boys Don’t Cry. Cotillard allows Stephanie to be who she is, to have kinky sexual needs, to drink and party without a hint of remorse. What does it say about her lack of vanity as an actress, that she lets this woman have an extremely sharp, unlikable edge rather than playing her as a martyr? That would be far too expected and Cotillard is not a performer who traffics in those terms.
Based purely on the merits of her performance, Cotillard should be a shoe-in for any awards. Back in 2007 she became only the second performer to win the Best Actress award for a non-English speaking role in La vie en rose (she ended up winning Best Actress from a historic four international film academies including France, England and the Czech Republic), yet in movie after movie she’s made since, her awards magnetism seems to have vanished. A shame really, considering that she’s spent these five years proving she’s one of the most remarkable working actresses becoming a bona fide scene stealer in films as varied as Public Enemies and Inception as well as the much maligned Nine(where she gave a performance much worthier than the one that eventually won the Oscar that year).
Going back through her awards track record we realize that other than La vie en rose and a few scattered mentions for Nine, Cotillard hasn’t really scored much love from award groups. Yet many people have decided that it is precisely based on her “impeccable” track record that she will be a slam dunk for this. Cotillard has more than a few things in her favor, first and foremost the notion that this is yet another so-called “weak” Best Actress year where her status as a previous winner automatically puts her name into the discourse. She’s also already won a Best Actress award from the Hollywood Film Festival for Rust and Bone, which might sound curious but actually has an impressive record when it comes to predicting future Oscar nominees (in their 17-year history, they’ve only missed on Best Actress nominees five times).
There’s also several factors that seem to go against her chances, beginning with the ridiculous idea that only three actresses in the past have been nominated more than once for starring in foreign language movies (Sophia Loren, Isabelle Adjani and Liv Ullman, all nominated twice). Simply put, there is a widespread misconception that subtitles kill your chances, especially when you take into consideration that Sony Pictures Classics might also be looking to get a nomination for Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva. Never before have two foreign language actresses been nominated for the same award in the same language, will voters choose one or the other or break the precedent finally?
Marion’s performance might be hard to categorize which might also present a challenge for some voters. After being touted to win Best Actress in Cannes (where the Oscar buzz started) and then losing to two unknowns, she was also snubbed at the European Film Awards, where both she and the movie were eligible, yet both came out with zero nods. Stranger things have happened before and Cotillard’s performance in Audiard’s stylish, fresh film just might be the one to finally overcome all the bad omens and statistics from years past. Regardless of what awards say, her Stephanie is the most dazzling star turn of 2012 and with Cate Blanchett (who recently wrote about her work for Variety) among fans of your work as the campaign mounts, who knows what will happen…
With that said, why do you think people think of Cotillard as such an awards magnet?