Hollywood often rewards transformational performances.

Charlize Theron won her Oscar after gaining 30 pounds to play Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003), but having proved her ability to commit mind and body to a role, she hasn’t repeated the exercise. For actresses, too often appearance is currency, and their great fear—real or imagined—is that temporarily erasing their beauty to inhabit a physically inferior, but emotionally superior, character offers limited returns. “Now that you’ve seen what I can do,” they seem to say, “You don’t need to see me do it again.” Only the bravest actresses—Tilda Swinton, and to a lesser extent Michelle Williams, to name two of the few—appear on the big screen repeatedly in unglamorous roles. But five years after La Vie en Rose, Marion Cotillard not only removes her makeup for the role of Stéphanie in Rust and Bone; she also removes her legs.

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), the floundering American writer, Gil (Owen Wilson), who finds himself most evenings mysteriously transported to the 1920s where he fraternizes with the luminaries of the Lost Generation, travels one night with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) to the home of Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Gil and Hemingway enter the parlor and find Stein arguing in rapid French with Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) over the merits of his new painting.

“I was just telling Pablo that this portrait doesn’t capture Adriana,” Stein says to Gil. “It has a universality, but no objectivity… Look how he’s done her. Dripping with sexual innuendo, carnal to the point of smoldering. Yes, she’s beautiful, but it’s a subtle beauty, an implied sensuality. I mean, what is your first impression of Adriana?”

Gil looks to his right, and there stands Adriana herself—played by Marion Cotillard—in a black jersey dress and lace headband, smoking a cigarette in a gold-tipped mahogany holder, leaning against a door jamb with her languorous, half-closed eyes. “Exceptionally lovely,” says Gil.

“You can see why he’s lost all objectivity,” says Hemingway.

“He’s made a creature of Place Pigalle,” continues Stein. “A whore with volcanic appetites…She’s your lover [Picasso], but we don’t know her that way. So you make a petite bourgeois judgment and turn her into an object of pleasure.”

Stein is right. Cotillard’s Adriana is anything but a common whore. She’s passionate but staid, a dreamer who never acts on impulse. She’s neither coquettish nor demure, and in the constant presence of ambitious, unstable artists, she seems sure-footed and constant—if a little directionless. In other words, Adriana represents the idealized American interpretation of a Frenchwoman, one who could break your heart without really hurting your feelings, whose face you would remember fondly on your deathbed.

Allen was 75 when he directed Midnight in Paris, and his cinematic treatment of Cotillard aches with  sentimentality—an older man recalling an ungraspable, unknowable girl from his youth. And Cotillard appears to fit nicely into this archetype. In American movies, she always plays the enticingly aloof foreigner, never exotic to the point of caricature, but always disconnected, as if deep down she longs to go home. One can’t separate this fact from the reality of the American films she’s been cast in, though. American directors seek her out, by and large, to fulfill a requirement. If you need a cool, elegant, mysteriously beautiful, European movie star, Cotillard is the best investment on the market. Her Rust and Bone co-star Matthias Schoenaerts perhaps put it best: “She’s lovely. She’s devoted. She’s passionate. She’s intelligent. She’s sensitive. Everything you want.”

cotillard in locker roomBut having spoken with Cotillard recently (as well as Schoenaerts and her director, Jacques Audiard), it’s hard to rationalize her recent onscreen presence—in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) and Dark Knight Rises (2012), Allen’s Midnight in Paris, or even Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2010) where she plays an unglamorous, harried World Health Organization official—with the role that won her the Best Actress Oscar in 2008: Édith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose.

La Vie en Rose chronicles the chaotic youth, rise, and collapse of Piaf. Cotillard, in a state of increasing disrepair, plays the French singer from the age of 20 until her death at 47, and at no point would you leap up to call her beautiful. Even in the scene when she auditions for Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) at Le Gerny’s—where Leplée imagines her as a trapped bird and gives her the name “Piaf,” meaning sparrow—we’re attracted to her for her other-worldly ability to sing, not her face or her body. Cotillard’s Piaf, like the real Piaf, hunches forward and lists to one side as she croons, arms straight at her sides, her small body contorted almost in pain. And as Piaf ages, abusing herself with alcohol and drugs, she becomes increasingly grotesque. There’s an image in the film—Piaf reclining on a chaise lounge under a blanket, her face drooping with loose skin, and her thin, artificially red hair receded almost to the crown of her skull—where Cotillard’s beauty is so thoroughly eradicated that the actress herself disappears entirely. But Cotillard’s temperamental transformation is perhaps even more severe than her physical augmentation. If in Midnight in Paris Cotillard is quiet, sweet, demure and graceful, in La Vie en Rose she’s loud, vulgar, belligerent, and graceless.

For the last five years, though, moviemakers have been more or less content to document Cotillard’s innate charismatic screen presence. She’s a wonderful actress to watch, regardless of what she’s doing. “I think it’s very interesting for an actress,” she told me, “to have different experiences, and to find your place in all those very different visions, and way of working, and way of filming is very, very inspiring.” But in her recent survey course of American (and a few French) directors, no one demanded from her a physical and emotional performance on par with Piaf—until Jacques Audiard cast her as Stéphanie in his sensational new film, Rust and Bone (2012).

At the center of Rust and Bone are Ali van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts), a homeless man from Belgium hitchhiking across France with his young son, and Stéphanie, an orca trainer at a marine park on the Côte d’Azur. After Stéphanie suffers an horrific accident at the water park, the two begin an improbable romance. Ali helps Stéphanie with her physical and emotional rehabilitation, and in return, Stéphanie helps Alain become a successful street fighter. It’s the sort of high-concept plot you might expect of an Almodóvar film, but handled with the over-the-shoulder, natural-light neorealism that made Audiard’s crime masterpieces The Beat that My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Prophet (2009) so urgent and unforgettable.

The Beat that My Heart Skipped follows Thomas Sayr (Romain Duris) as he tries to extricate himself from a life of crime—ultimately to no avail. A Prophet, similarly, concentrates on Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a young Arab man who rises, by any means necessary, through the racially segregated hierarchy of a French prison. In Rust and Bone, though, Audiard is exploring new themes; or, at the very least, he’s exploring old themes in a new way. As with Beat and Prophet, violence is central to the plot. But unlike in his earlier work, the violence in Rust and Bone isn’t connected to a criminal enterprise. Stéphanie suffers an accidental injury, and even though Ali makes money as an illegal street brawler, his opponents agree to fight him. Accordingly, the violence in Rust and Bone doesn’t beget a culture of retaliation as it does in Audiard’s other work. Here violence earns a positive, cathartic connotation. Stéphanie doesn’t try to convince Ali to stop fighting. In fact, she encourages him to continue. The fighting seems to strengthen their emotional—and later sexual—relationship. And this controlled, contractual violence eventually aids in Stéphanie’s recovery.

There’s a scene in the first half of the film when Stéphanie accompanies Ali to his first fight. She isn’t allowed out of the van, so she has to watch through the window. At first, she’s visibly nervous. But as he begins to win, she experiences almost an orgasmic pleasure.

“What Stéphanie feels when she’s watching Ali fight,” Cotillard told me, “is something like a powerful energy. A positive violence, as opposed to a violence that leads to destruction. I remember feeling through her, of course, kind of relieved. The energy of the violence slowly turned into something very, very powerful. Step by step after her accident, watching Ali fight, she started to feel alive. Before, she was kind of an empty shell.”

Jacques Audiard said in an interview with The Washington Times at Cannes last May that he saw in Cotillard a toughness, even a masculinity, that made her perfect for the role of Stéphanie. When I spoke with him I asked him to confirm this, and he said that, “In La Vie en Rose, at certain moments, Marion did things that only she could do. The way she coped, the way she forgot her character. And yes, it’s true, I find inside Marion a mixture of very attractive masculinity and femininity.”

And he needed a tough actress. Hollywood has traditionally reserved disfigurement for men. At the height of his popularity, Tom Cruise played the mutilated David Aames in the 2001 remake, Vanilla Sky (although donning decidedly more modest facial prosthetics than Eduardo Noriega’s in the Spanish original, Abre los Ojos). After Lethal Weapon and before Braveheart, Mel Gibson played a burn victim in The Man Without a Face. And in the performance that launched his career, Daniel Day-Lewis won his first Oscar portraying Christy Brown, a painter and writer with severe cerebral palsy in My Left Foot (1989). But many fewer actresses have had either the courage or the opportunity to play physically maimed women. At the zenith of her life as an American movie star, though, Cotillard signed up to have her legs cut off in Rust and Bone.

Unlike in Million Dollar Baby (2004), where Hillary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald doesn’t sever her spinal cord until the final act, Cotillard’s Stéphanie becomes an amputee 20 minutes into the film, and spends the rest of the picture either in a wheelchair or wearing prosthetic limbs. In Rust and Bone, we encounter a star at her most vulnerable, often without makeup, and sometimes without clothes. There are two heroically erotic scenes—one at the beach, and one in the bedroom—where Audiard challenges the audience to desire Stéphanie sexually despite her disability and Cotillard rises to the challenge, making us want her.

cotillard in bedFor Cotillard to bear her physical imperfections—both artificial (her amputated legs) and actual (her unpainted face)—at the height of her popularity requires courage few leading actresses have. But I also feel that Cotillard’s decision to play Stéphanie is closely related to her ability to play Stéphanie. For Stéphanie, controlled violence contains a cathartic, healing energy. But that is an incredibly intricate emotion to convey to the audience. In narrative art, violence is usually a self-contained unethical act, or it extends directly from an unethical one. Violence is either the event that begets a revenge cycle, or it is the revenge itself. Not so in Rust and Bone. This is a moral innovation on Audiard’s part for conceiving such a story (even the purifying effects of fighting in Fight Club wear off), and a coup de grace to both critics and filmmakers, wherever they might lurk, who see Cotillard only as a pretty, charming face. Besides Emmanuelle Riva in Amour and Isidora Simijonovic in Clip, I would argue strongly that no actress gave a better performance in 2012 than Cotillard in Rust and Bone, and it was a travesty she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award.

On paper, the plot of Rust and Bone seems almost absurd. But in practice it’s intense and emotionally affecting. When I spoke with Cotillard, I asked her how, as an actress, she prepared to take her character on the journey from orca trainer to double amputee to street fight manager—without ever losing the trust of her audience. “There was actually a time,” Cotillard said, “maybe ten years ago where I would go to watch boxing all the time. Just by myself. I remember the first time I went there I was shocked by the violence. And then I started to see it totally differently. I started to love it and would go almost every month.”

I mentioned to her that I myself was a fan of boxing and MMA, and had experienced the same apprehension at my first live fight in Boston. I’d seen men knock each other out plenty on television, but something about seeing the violence from a few feet away made the action, at first, almost too intimate. But as you acclimate to the brutality, you begin to see sanctioned fighting as a permissible replication of mortal battle. Either fighter could get killed—in fact, both men are trying to kill each other—and yet they agree to be there, and are friends afterward. “Yeah, yeah, I know!” said Cotillard. “It’s fighting, but it’s also sharing this huge energy. This very powerful energy. The relationship they have in the ring increases the power they both have. It’s incredible.”

This definition of combat as a unification of energy, I realized, could just as accurately be applied to acting. In a tense scene, two actors bring competing agendas to the stage and battle. The more violent (or dramatic) the context of their exchange, and the better matched they are with their opponents, the greater the energy they release, and the greater the emotional effect they have on the audience. But just as a great boxer fighting to pad his record with easy wins ceases to show us his true ability, a great actress can’t stun us without a monumentally challenging role. And if enough time passes between great bouts, either for the fighter or the actor, we start to doubt her resolve.

At the Los Angeles premiere of Rust and Bone last November, AFI Fest gave a tribute to Cotillard. Perched nervously before a sold-out audience at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, she seemed overwhelmed by the praise. Anthony Breznican, the Entertainment Weekly writer who interviewed her on stage, asked if, as her career has progressed, she’s found her ability to influence and shape her characters increasing. “Each movie,” answered Cotillard, “when I start shooting, I’m very anxious. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to give everything [I need to give] to a character.” This is the humility we’ve come to expect from great stars (no one is less sure of his abilities than Daniel Day-Lewis, and no one has greater talent). But my fear is that this genuine reticence on Cotillard’s part may limit the roles she considers taking. I don’t mean to suggest that she isn’t selective, but five years elapsed after La Vie en Rose before Jacques Audiard reminded us of what Cotillard is fully capable of in a performance. American directors have handled her with kid gloves for the better part of a decade, and the time has come to be rough with her. Marion Cotillard didn’t win her first Academy Award playing an ingenue. And she won’t win her second one for being pretty, either. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2013 issue.