Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Marion Cotillard in La vie en rose

Biopic performances have always been right up the Academy's alley, especially in the last few years when we can't seem to have an Oscar year without such an Oscar winning performance. Still, when a relatively unknown French actress named Marion Cotillard took home an Academy Award for playing Édith Piaf, the legendary French singer over the legendary Julie Christie, viewers were nothing short of shocked. Marion Cotillard's Oscar win shows how the Academy can (and should always) work: Marion Cotillard won an Oscar simply on the merits of her work, which lots of Hollywood actors praised for its bravery. You might say that Marion campaigned for that Oscar, but after all, she got all the attention for her performance and in the end, it was always about her performance. Every once in a while, the Academy really gives the Oscar to what they consider the best performance of the year (I loved 2007 because all the important awards went to the right place, except for Original Screenplay).

Also, it really amazes me that people seem to dislike La vie en rose, which is, in my opinion, one of the three best films of 2007. It achieves everything that The Iron Lady was aiming to and does so effortlessly. Basically, it's about Édith Piaf remembering her life on her deathbed and that explains its odd structure. I feel that the movie should have taken home all the Oscar for the costumes and the win for the make-up was well-deserved. Actually, I would have nominated the film, the director and Emmanuelle Seigner who breaks your heart in her brief time on the scene as Titine, the prostitute who takes care of the five-year-old Edith.

Although Marion Cotillard was no stranger to American audiences after her parts in Big Fish and A Good Year, it was La vie en rose that brought her the recognition that lead to lots of other roles in the US (she's actually even become a sort-of-muse to Christopher Nolan). Some were hoping for an F. Murray Abraham type of post-Oscar career and instead she's become a prolific and popular actress in Hollywood with lots of new fans and the possiblity of another Oscar nomination for her critically acclaimed performance in Rust and Bone (fingers crossed).

Olivier Dahan told reporters that he chose Marion for the part of the French chanteuse because she's the actress who's not afraid of portraying tragedy on the big screen and tragedy is what best describes the life of Édith Piaf: blindness, alcoholism, morphine addiction, being an abandoned child, loss of the true love. It seems that whenever Édith was having a good time or feeling good about herself, there was something coming towards her that would take all the pleasure from her. Even Judy Garland's life story seems to be a cakewalk compared to Édith's. Although each of those above mentioned elements scream Oscar (especially in a biopic), I'm still saying that Marion's performance is a very unusual one to win the Oscar since it ignores so many rules and is so different from everything we've seen before. No wonder her work's become somewhat controversial: first of all, the subject of the movie is really European, it's passionate, the emotions are really overwhelming and I don't think many people got it. Also, some might refuse to read subtitles and think that great performance come only in English. I suppose Julie Christie might have been a more defendable pick for the Best Actress and we all know the Academy likes to play safe. I think it takes a very special performance to overcome all these boundaries and boy, is Marion special in every way!

Even if we ignore every merit of Marion's performance beside the technical part, it still remains a riveting and haunting performance, which rivals Meryl Streep's astonishing work as Margaret Thatcher. Marion transforms into this woman and embodies her so well that you refuse to believe that you're not looking at Édith Piaf. Even if this all sounds cheesy, you have to see to believe it. Marion Cotillard indeed completely disappear and instead we see a woman in different ages and conditions.  The beautiful, young and tall Marion Cotillard becomes a broken-down, dying woman who looks 70 at the age of 47. Marion heartbreakingly shows the effects of Édith's self-destructive lifestyle on her body: her voice becomes scratchier, her body deforms and so on. I don't think I've seen self-destruction portrayed in such a harrowing, brutal way. But the fact is, that Marion disappears even in the scenes without the tons of make-up. Yes, the terrific make-up helped Marion a lot, but she uses it as a tool instead of letting it do the work for her.

And yes, if we're here, let me just adress all the comments about her lip-syncing as it's probably the most annoying thing what I hear about her. First of all, whether an actress sings herself or not is the choice of the director. We all know from Nine (and other movies) that Marion is a terrific singer who could have sung all the chansons of Piaf perfectly, but the aim of the movie was to draw an intimate portrait of Édith Piaf and not  providing a showcase for Marion Cotillard and Piaf's voice was essential to that portrait. Marion's task was to make this voice her own by using her body and main task was to recreate the wonder of Édith Piaf who was much more compley than a great singing voice. During her performances (and in real life) she had a very special aura that made her such an enourmous, radiant presence, which is really indescribable. In a scene, Marion has to recreate this miracle on screen without Édith's voice and she (SURPRISE!) succeeds in every possible way because above all, she embodied the soul of Édith Piaf, which was indeed the key to her personality.

And here we come to the most important thing about her: the most brilliant thing about this performance is neither the technical part nor the emotions, it's really the way these two combine. First, Marion inhabited Édith's soul and spirit, which helped her recreate the phsyical aspects of the character and this is how she developed Édith's. And she did so with the movie standing in her way: since it ignored the chronological order of the events, Marion couldn't develop Édith gradually so she had to find some connections in the story and the events.

On this journey, we get to know many faces of Édith and actually, very few of them is likeable. However, Marion was somehow able to make us look up to Édith even when she's the bitchiest or the nastiest to everyone, because we are able to understand why and how her personality changed throughout the years. As a result, every part of her life is somehow different and the tragedies become heartbreaking for different reasons. As a young woman, the two most heartbreaking moments come right after each other: her menthor dies and her best friend is taken away from her as well. Her drunken meltdown over this (for me) is equal to the choice of Sophie.

My favorite moments in this film come when we get to see the romance between Édith and Marcel Cerdan (and you just cannot ignore the scene between Édith and Marlene Dietrich, which is indeed magical). Life is unusually balanced for Édith here and Marion excels also as a happy woman. For me, the real feat is that she was able to make the happiness of Édith just as haunting as her suffering and that's why the end of this story is one of the most painful scenes in movie history.

However, it's the end that most people will probably remember the most about this performance as it's quite simply cathartic. The moments of the interview on the beach, Édith crying on her deathbed or her final performance are nothing short of amazing. In about 15 minutes, Marion does what others couldn't do in 150 minutes. She shows the essence of Piaf's character without seeming preachy or cheesy. All the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and its effect is just cannot be described with words. Her "advice" for every person becomes so true and so effective, even in its simplicity. And Marion's delivery of that single word is just... :)

In the end, there isn't much to say about Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf. Cotillard is nothing short of amazing in every possible way an actress can be. Her performance has the effect of an earthquake: it makes you go through Édith's journey along with her and get to understand why this woman was such a brilliant artist. It's very unusual, extraordinary and unbelievable work from a truly great actress who gives probably the most  brilliant portrayal of a real life person.
What do you think? 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Laura Linney in The Savages

Laura Linney received her third Oscar nomination for playing Wendy Savage, a neurotic, insecure woman who has to deal with a dying father in The Savages. Laura Linney was the surprise nominee of 2007 but that doesn't mean that she had no chance of winning the Oscar. In my opinion, she had a firm fanbase in the Academy and might have even received enough votes to be third. The screenplay nomination proves that they liked the movie and Laura Linney had already lost twice. I suppose, in the end, it was Marion's Oscar and nobody could do anything about it. 

The Savages is such a really great and memorable film, with lots of dark moments and real drama that has a great effect because of the performances of the two leads. Interesting enough, Philip Seymour Hoffman's work received more recognition than Laura's and yet Laura received the nomination. Hoffman had to make do with a supporting nomination for Charlie Wilson's War. Fortunately, however, the screenplay did receive a nomination even though I'm not saying Tamara Jenkins should have taken home the Oscar instead of Diablo Cody (Ratatouille was the best in the category for me).

It's also easy to see why Laura's performance was singled out for a nomination: she's a respected actress, a previous nominee and characters like Wendy are indeed Laura's specality. Some say Laura plays the same character over and over, but I have to disagree with that. The fact is that nobody else plays neurotic women with problems the way Linney does: she adds lots of humor and humanity to these character and this combination makes her performances such treats. She makes it so easy to sympathise with the women she plays: there's always a moment when you say 'Oh, I'm just like that.' Laura reveals the flaws of her character and yet those make them more likeable.

And in that way, this performance is a standard Laura Linney performance with a standard Linney character. However, even a standard Linney performance is something truly wonderful and memorable. Wendy Savage is a person who seems to be quite unlikeable at first sight, but as the movie progresses, she gets to become the most likeable and warm presence in the movie. Just like with every other character she plays, Laura reveals Wendy's humanity and flaws in a very unique way and as a result it's very easy to relate to Wendy. Personally, I got much closer to knowing this person than Philip Seymour Hoffman's character.

However, I must say that the two actors work excellently together. One can rarely witness the relationship between siblings portrayed in such a realistic and believable way. I could feel the connection between them and how they are the total opposites of each other. There's an odd mix of love and rivalry between them. The scene with the argument over Wendy's scholarship is just extraordinary: all the tension over the years between these two people come to surface in their petty argument, the jealousy, envy of Jon and the feeling of being ignored and underestimated of Wendy. Laura wonderfully underlines the insecurities in Wendy, as if she herself couldn't believe of herself that she'd be worthy of a scholarship (which she doesn't have anyway). One can feel the embarassment of Wendy when she's confronted with the truth by her brother. And Laura is just so darn human in those scenes. This relationship forms throughout the movie and I'm not saying that they get much closer or find complete peace with each other, it's just that they get closer to each other.

The thing I was missing from the screenplay is truly revealing the backstory of the relationship of the siblings with their father, Leonard. We get clues about Jon, but Wendy's story with Lenny is not completely told and I felt sorry for that as I believe it would have been explained a lot about Wendy's personality. Instead, Laura has to provide with some kind of an explanation and she offers some suggestions, from which the viewer has to choose. Wendy feels enourmously guilty about putting his father into a nursing home (unlike her brother) and in my opinion, she was the one who was more concerned about Lenny of the two. That's why the scene on the plane feels almost cathartic. A woman ignored by her father doesn't let him down in the end and I also felt some kind of a redemption in that scene.

This is probably why the way Linney tackles Wendy's relationship with men (in general) is one of the most intresting aspects of this performance. Is that older boyfriend of Wendy a kind of a daddy thing for her? That's why her scenes with the Nigerian nurse are so intriguing and important. Although Wendy experiences rejection once again, there was someone who really appreciated her for what she is and gave her some positive feedback about herself. And this sort of dependancy on men that Laura shows is not because of a sexist screenplay (a woman wrote it after all, though it could be a problem even then) but could indeed reveal something about the lack of love from her father, which Wendy desperately wants to create.

My only problem could be that there's no big scene for Laura. Although I loved her throughout the film and I was constantly pleased by her presence, I would have wanted to see her being more emotional. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like her performance had an emotional highlight. As a result, I felt her work was slightly lacking as Laura didn't get to display everything she had in her and basically show everything she knows about her character and actually, it's the movie that standing in her way. Sometimes the direction was desperate to impress and that prevented the actors (who actually carry the movie on their shoulders) from really shining. And in the end, I found that her performance didn't become as interesting as it could have been, which is proven by the fact that you really have to think what to write about her as her work didn't become that rich in the end because the screenplay actually cheated Laura out of many opportunities that she could (and should) have had.

Still, Laura Linney gives an extremely relatable, wonderful performance as a person who doesn't seem to be likeable at all at first sight and yet we get close to her and sympathise with her character. She never goes for cheap tricks to portray the neurotic personality of Wendy. She excellently mixes comedy with drama, creating the ideal dramedy performance while seeming effortless all the time (something that one of her fellow nominees didn't really succeed in). 

What do you think?(Sorry for making you all wait, but I was really invested in the Olympic Games and I couldn't really write. The next review {Marion} comes on Sunday or Monday)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Julie Christie in Away from Her

Julie Christie received her fourth Oscar nomination for playing Fiona Anderson, a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease in Sarah Polley's movie, Away from Her. Julie basically swept the critics' awards and then all the other important awards: a Critics' Choice Award, a Golden Globe and eventually, the SAG. In the end, she only lost Bafta, which didn't seem to be a big deal for her as her win seemed all locked up but there was just something odd about Bafta not going for a legendary British actress (as expected). After all, Marion Cotillard pulled off the biggest surprise win in the Best Actress race for a very long time. I suppose Julie was eventually second, though I can even imagine that Ellen Page or Laura Linney got ahead of her if their fans were passionate enough. 

Away from Her is a beautifully told story and Sarah Polley's direction is very competent and proper and yet I felt that sometimes she was trying way too hard and that eventually led to some very clumsy and out-of-place moments. However, there's lots of truth and beauty in this piece, which may not become a classic, but is a film that deeply moves you. That Screenplay nomination was almost well-deserved, I'm not quite certain about it. Still, it was lovely to see the Academy recognise such a small film even if the recognition was restricted to its Academy-friendly elements. 

Julie Christie was one of these two elements and it's no wonder, really: she had already given many acclaimed and memorable performances, she had even won an Oscar previously for her work in Darling. The comeback win seemed to have been written in the stars. Julie had her ups and downs in her relationship with Hollywood, but her generation (which had always been very loving and supportive of her). I find it very hard to believe that Al Pacino, Warren Beatty or Jane didn't tick the box next to her name. It's hard to ignore Julie's enourmous talent or stunning beauty. Even when she gets a so-so part in a shitty movie like Afterglow, she can create something memorable, which is stunning at least in some parts.

Interesting enough, Julie's Fiona is actually not the main character of Away from Her (that has to be Gordon Pinsent's Grant) and she could even seem to be a mere plot device, one cannot argue that Julie's performance has the biggest impact on the viewer. Sarah Polley's direction clearly relies (sometimes way too much) on the fact that the viewers should also fall in love with Julie's character and that's why we get lots of close-ups. Sarah Polley occasionally seems so desperate to create a kind of spiritual atmosphere in this movie and she always pushes Julie out in front whenever she's afraid of her movie's not being beautiful enough. Julie Christie's beauty is limitless and that's probably why it's such a safe source of effect whenever the directors feels trouble. However, I felt that Christie porbably realised this and sometimes toned it down and added some humor and irony to the character.

Julie also did wonderfully at showing the stages of Alzheimer's and its effects on this particular human being. Even at the beginning, she suggests the fact that there's trouble so effortlessly and naturally. Actually, the scene where Fiona puts the frying pan into a frige could have been an overdone moment and yet Julie was able to play it with ease and avoided making that scene overdramatic. She doesn't portray this disease as if she was in a Greek tragedy and there are no loud moments like in Iris (a movie to which many like to compare Away from Her, even though they have their respective approaches to Alzheimer's are totally different) and Julie maximises her grace and dignity in this part. The silent breakdowns and tears are the most effective here and they make the movie incredibly painful to watch.

The way Julie portrays how Fiona gradually realises that something's wrong with her is just amazing and incredibly heartbreaking. Her big monologue when Fiona forgets the word wine is just brilliant. There isn't a false note in that scene she neither underplays nor overacts the pain and confusion of that scene. After all, a simple movement turns out to be a very intimate and puzzling confusion. She fills it with so much emotion and pain that it becomes almost unbearable to watch her.

However, the most painful scenes come in the middle of the film where Fiona and Grant have to say goodbye to each other for a month. These moments are incredibly haunting and indescribably beautiful and tender, thanks to the wonderful chemistry between Gordon Pinsent and Julie. There are pictures and moments that just stay in your moments: the couple's dance next to the Christmas tree, their discussion in the car, Pinsent's monologue on Julie's look where her beauty is just about perfectly described. Her face is so expressive that you can feel every emotion of Fiona with absolutely no dialogue. It's all in Julie's stunningly blue eyes. Julie wonderfully plays with her own body and does so with incredible subtlty.

For me the greatest scene is the one where Fiona asks Grant to make love to her one last time and than go away quickly. When Julie was lying in the bed, I couldn't help but think about her performance as Lara in Doctor Zhivago where Julie also played true love to perfection and in a way, Fiona and Grant are just as doomed as Lara and Yuri were. I don't think that Julie has ever been more beautiful than she was in this scene.

After this scene, Julie doesn't get much screentime and she becomes like a ghost in this film and her character indeed is away from her husband. It was stunning to me how brilliantly Julie built up this wall between the characters and actually, her lack of presence makes the effect of her performance even stronger (just like Sissy Spacek's in In the Bedroom which has a very similar Oscar story). As she said in her earlier monologue, Fiona is beginning to disappear and Julie portrays it with the same subtlety. You see her empty looks and that vital, beautiful, sexy woman turns out to be a broken old woman. That's why her last scene becomes such a cathartic one: for a moment that wall between Fiona and Grant seems to disappear and Fiona's old self comes to surface one last time. This moment becomes beautiful and effective because both actors avoid cheap sentimentality and that results in a truly effective ending

As Fiona Anderson, Julie Christie gives an amazing, heartbreaking performance that stays with you long after you finished watching the film. She portrays Fiona's pain and suffering with an incredible amount of grace and dignity and that's what makes this movie even more effective and heartwrenching. Although Julie's acting might be too subtle and seem too effortless for some, for me this is a true masterclass in acting, which is easily among the greatest achievements of this fantastic actress.

What do you think?