Last May, Marion Cotillard and the Dardennes brothers brought the exquisite Two Days, One Night to the Cannes Film Festival. The film received rave reviews from those who published them. Heading into the prize ceremony, everyone thought Cotillard had to win. What a role it was. Cotillard carried the film completely. She wasn’t defined by her sexuality nor was she was a little lost lamb sadly wandering through the film. She was a desperate HUMAN BEING trying to save her family from financial ruin. Wow, she was doing something that didn’t depend in any way on her relationship with a male protagonist. The beloved French actress had never won a Cannes prize. Here is what Hitfix’s Guy Lodge wrote about her odds and the film itself:
The odds: No filmmaker has ever won three Palmes d’Or, and the Dardennes seem as likely as anyone to get their first — their restrained humanism is the kind of filmmaking which could unite jurors otherwise divided on the merits of flashier works. Still, however good the film is, it’d be deemed a safe choice for top honors; Jane Campion’s eclectic jury may prefer to look a little further afield. Jigsaw Lounge places it squarely midfield with odds of 16-1; my instinct is that if the film is rewarded at all, it’ll be for Cotillard, who could be considered unlucky after missing out on Best Actress for fine work in “Rust and Bone” and “The Immigrant.” She’s the on-paper favorite at this point.
And sure enough, Lodge was right about the film. It didn’t stand a chance against Leviathan and the Palme winner, Winter Sleep. But Cotillard? Julianne Moore won instead for Maps to the Stars. Naturally, the Oscar pundits simply followed Moore and dropped Cotillard. Perhaps this was because her performance in Rust and Bone was mostly ignored, despite how great it was and despite how hard she publicized it. Perhaps this was looking like another Rust and Bone.
I did not sense, despite the great reviews, much buzz around Cotillard and the Dardennes film. I remember hearing “lesser Dardennes” from a few but I can’t recall the exact tweets. My perception of it heading away from Cannes was that it would be mostly ignored in the awards race.
The loss by Cotillard for Best Actress when it was expected she would win, when she’d never won before, simply deflated the buzz balloon. The film then went to Telluride but also was having trouble standing out there. No one was really talking about the film or Cotillard at all. She had no advocates from that point on. People like me shifted our attention elsewhere, to Julianne Moore, to Hilary Swank, to Reese Witherspoon and Rosamund Pike — and finally, to Felicity Jones.
The awards race does tend to lean in the direction of American or British actors. It is difficult for any French actress, or Spanish actress, to get in and win. It happens but the Academy are ruled by actors and actors here tend to like to fortify the homebase rather than invest outwardly. It happens but it’s rare. So pundits like myself and others know that history, see that potential, and say, okay, Cotillard’s out. Had she won in Cannes she would have been at least being considered for an award. She was a contender but considered a dark horse.
But something funny happened on the way to the critics awards. First, it’s very likely Cotillard’s performance never left many of their collective hearts. Several of the voters in both New York and LA have raves on record for the film and her performance. Second, they got to drag out the awards race villain, Harvey Weinstein. The idea was MEAN OLD HARVEY WEINSTEIN had “buried” The Immigrant and along with it, yet another mesmerizing performance by the great Cotillard.
Suddenly, Cotillard went right to the top of the lists as an easy call for a Best Actress win. No one can say she isn’t deserving. She gives a fantastic performance and once again sets herself up as a competitor with a beloved veteran, in this case, Julianne Moore. Being a frontrunner is no easy feat. Boredom, resentment and sometimes even hatred starts to bubble up because those watching the race are looking for drama.
But it was also clear that there was an urgency to vote for Cotillard because of how badly The Immigrant was treated, supposedly, by Harvey Weinstein. This notion was subsequently debunked by Mark Harris in a Twitter exchange after the Boston Film Critics or the New York Film Critics.
That urgency to pick Cotillard comes from the best place. It also was a great example of how the critics, in 2014, have mostly rejected the narrative put in place by the Oscar bloggers — many of whom simply do not wait for the critics to ring before deciding whether a film is worthy or not. I always say critics matter – but to tell you the truth, they used to matter a lot more than they do now.
They seem to be taking a stand against the consensus, going their own way without the need or the desire to agree with the growing consensus. I have to believe this is ultimately a good thing for film overall and a good thing for the Oscar race. After all, the Oscars were never meant to gaze up the anal cavity of the film critics’ groups. They honor films that supposedly are made for audiences, not critics. It’s nearly impossible to get a Best Picture win now without a really good Metacritic score. You can’t have anyone hating your movie, that’s for sure. But as you can see from this year, it’s quite easy to simply skip the critics entirely, as Unbroken, Into the Woods, American Sniper are all doing. Wait as long as possible for those reviews – because reviews can color how people watch your movie.
I’ll never forget the story that Robert Redford told in Telluride last year about the first play he did. He said afterwards the audience was applauding, they had a party and everyone was so happy with how it went, thought it was going to be a major hit. Then the New York Times review came out. It was a pan. Everyone got quiet, completely forgetting how much they loved the play. It was dead. It closed and that was the end of that. Redford said he learned then everything you need to know about how perception works.
Like it or not, even the critics roll on perception. As Glenn Kenny told me on Twitter, no one really can say for sure if a film is a failure until many years later. They think they know, but they don’t really know. So you float on perception. By nature, human beings like to be on the winning side. Testosterone actually drops when a man stands next to a loser and rises when he stands next to a winner. It is easier to love a winner and harder to hate a loser.
And that is how Marion Cotillard mostly got forgotten in the awards race of 2014. It is also why critics can get films wrong, why the Oscars can get films wrong — if it’s all about perception and not about the film itself, time exposes the truth eventually.
Think about how it works. When people start loving up a movie it suddenly becomes a shared experience. You are then defined by what you like and the people who like it with you. Some films that have built up those kinds of admiration camps this year include Under the Skin, Ida, Locke, and in its own way and to a larger degree Birdman. Under the Skin is really the one that has grown in stature as the months have worn on. It’s really a great movie, despite the lackluster reception in Cannes this year. It’s original, strange, and ultimately quite moving.
What happened, essentially, was that we pundits got it in our heads that the Best Actress race for the Oscar was headed in a certain direction and that direction was the long overdue Julianne Moore, who, like Cotillard gave two masterful performances this year. The first in Maps to the Stars and the second in Still Alice. The second was deemed the kind of movie “they,” the Oscar voters, go for, while Maps to the Stars was deemed “too much” for the Oscar voters. But one thing everyone agreed upon was that Julianne Moore was so ridiculously overdue for an Oscar win that all she really had to do was ask for it and with the right role and the right timing she could eventually and finally win. She’s always come so close and yet, like Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep, has always been too humble to really ever try for the Oscar. But she is trying this year and it would appear that everyone in the awards community so far wants to her to win.
But not the critics.
They not only preferred Cotillard’s fine work, but they also don’t care about extraneous things like how hard it is for older American actresses to get any substantial roles in films, like how few films about women overall there are in American film. The critics look at the movie and the performance. They don’t care about anything else. Believe me if they cared about leveling the playing field between men and women or white filmmakers and black filmmakers – things would look a lot different in their history. They like what they like and that’s that.
Usually, the Oscars don’t work exactly that way. They do take into account their 87 year history. They do take into account previous wins. They do take into account stature within the industry. That’s really why the pundits leaned the way they did.
Groupthink is always a dangerous thing. It limits choices. On the other hand, that is really how a massive consensus is built. Critics, with such small memberships, have the option to choose outside the box contenders. But those contenders then need aggressive publicity to become popular enough to crack the consensus.
But I would say, overall, pundits either dropped the ball on Cotillard or greatly underestimating her chances in this race. Part of that was the unpredictability of the last minute movement to BEAT DOWN MEAN OL’ HARVEY WEINSTEIN and part of it was critics remembering back how great Cotillard was. And still, another part of it is sometimes the need to resist the urge to go with the consensus — because how boring is that?