Marilyn Monroe wore it in bed; Andy Warhol immortalised it in a series of silk-screen prints; and 100 years after its invention, it remains a bestseller.
Chanel No 5 is, without question, the most famous fragrance in the world; yet its creation is as shrouded in myth and mystique as the history of Gabrielle Chanel herself.
The scent became her signature; it was sprayed by an assistant at the entrance of the Rue Cambon building, home to the Maison’s original boutique, to herald her arrival every day, and she scatter it on the glowing embers of her fireplace... Hers was the original ‘face’ of Chanel No 5: dressed in a gauzy black gown, leaning on the mantelpiece of her Ritz apartment, she appeared in Bazaar in a 1937 advertisement.
"Her Perfume No 5 is like the soft music that underlies the playing of a love scene," ran the accompanying copy. "It kindles the imagination, indelibly fixes the scene in the memories of the players." Little wonder if the women subsequently chosen to embody the fragrance have tended to be actresses, including Ali MacGraw, Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Nicole Kidman and Audrey Tautou.
The latest face seems the most apposite of all. Like Chanel herself, Marion Cotillard is exquisite, celebrated, utterly French and somehow unknowable, despite her international fame – or perhaps, indeed, because of it? "When I choose a character in a film, I always want to explore a different kind of person, someone who is very far from myself," she tells me. In the course of a career that started with Luc Besson’s action-comedy franchise Taxi and has encompassed playing the love interest in feelgood romances such as Midnight in Paris and A Good Year, she has also portrayed a double amputee in Rust and Bone, a refugee coerced into prostitution in The Immigrant and a Lady Macbeth maddened by grief. Most famously, of course, there was her portrayal of a morphine-addicted Edith Piaf in the 2007 biopic La Vie en Rose, which won her the first ever Best Actress Oscar awarded to a performance in French.
Cotillard’s chameleon-like ability to subsume her personality into her roles has drawn much admiration from her fellow thespians– Cate Blanchett has called her ‘a genius’ – but it does mean that I have very little idea what (or whom) to expect when I log onto Zoom for our talk. For a few minutes, I am alone, gazing into a book-lined Parisian study while two extravagantly hirsute gentlemen stare sternly back at me from a large oil painting. Then Cotillard makes her entrance, swirling into view in a flowing white Biyan dress, patterned with flowers, and I understand immediately why Nicole Kidman once described her as possessing a ‘fairy quality’.
Despite having spent the entire day shooting Bazaar’s cover story, Cotillard seems upbeat and energised, her huge, expressive eyes sparkling, her skin aglow. She is clearly delighted with her new appointment as a Chanel ambassador, having had a long association with the brand. "It felt like a reunion... It has accompanied me during some very pivotal and important moments in my career." Lyrically, she describes her introduction to Chanel No 5. "I was a teenager, around 15. My mum bought it for a British friend because she wanted to give her the ultimate French present. I loved it straight away. It’s mysterious, unique," she tells me. It also pleases her that it was the first fragrance created by a female couturier, "an avant-garde woman who was ahead of her time".
The day before, under conditions of total secrecy, I had been shown the campaign at Chanel’s London HQ. Shot by the Swedish director Johan Renck, the film has a dream-like romance that is in marked contrast to the gritty realism of his most recent hit, Chernobyl. On a snowy night in a deserted Paris, a lone woman, clad in sober black and white, leans on a bridge and gazes up at the full moon. Suddenly, she finds herself transported to its cratered surface and, now wearing an elegant golden evening gown – created by Virginie Viard and inspired by one worn by Chanel herself –dances wildly, yet in perfect synchronicity, with a handsome stranger. The final scene sees her restored to the Pont Louis-Philippe, her dance partner smiling by her side. Cotillard also performs the theme, Lorde’s song ‘Team’ (on top of her acting talents, she is an accomplished musician and singer).
"When we had the creative talk about what we would do, we thought we wanted something simple and radical, that this woman would be free and joyful," Cotillard explains. Unlike her approach to feature films, she was keen for the character to reflect her own personality.
"This woman is partly me – a free spirit." Her love of adventure may be attested by the fact that, mere weeks after being filmed flying to the moon, Cotillard set off on a very different, and rather more personally arduous, voyage to the Antarctic as a Greenpeace Ocean Ambassador, in order to highlight the impact of climate change, pollution and industrial fishing on marine life and penguin populations.
"It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life," she says softly. "It’s almost untouched; its energy is really fed by the fact that you can’t buy anything, you can’t sell anything..."
Life on board the Greenpeace ship was "deep and intense... rich with talking. But we saw a decreasing population of penguins, and plastics in a place where no man goes, so that was very disturbing. The whole trip, from pole to pole, was to try to open the public’s eyes to what could happen if we don’t set rules for these places. We were there to draw attention to this project." She sighs. "And I came back and then it was just a couple of weeks to a different crisis."
Cotillard already knew more about the potential impact of a global pandemic than many of us, having starred in the eerily prescient 2011 film Contagion. "When they wrote the script, they worked with scientists and the WHO, so it was very accurate," she says. "But we never really listen, and then we try to cure it [when it’s too late]. We maybe need to think about the way we look at disasters. And of course, climate change is one of the biggest challenges that we are going to face if we don’t do anything."
Her commitment to environmental causes is of long standing: she has cited her Breton grandmother as an early inspiration – "When she cooked, she wouldn’t waste anything. And my parents always raised me to believe that the most important thing was respect. Respect the place you live, be aware of the impact that you have."
In 2010, Cotillard made a series of films about the destruction of the rainforests by logging companies, and the following year, campaigned against the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Brazil. Then, in 2013, she protested against Russia’s detention of 30 Greenpeace activists by staging a caged demonstration outside the Louvre. She is painfully aware that having a film career is scarcely eco-friendly, given all the travel it entails. "That’s why Audrey Hepburn gave up acting," she once said.
But now it seems Cotillard has found a way to unite her disparate passions with her latest project, Bigger Than Us, a documentary she has herself produced to highlight the efforts of young activists around the world. "There’s an amazing young woman who works on forced marriage, another who works with migrants, and the activist who links all the others is from Bali and has managed to ban plastic bags there. Then we have a guy in Brazil who created a newspaper in the favelas..." She describes the film as "so deep, so brilliant, so moving and so inspiring. It’s really beautiful to see what young people can do," she says. "If I had seen this when I was a kid, it would have given me so much energy to stand for what I believe is right."
Not that she regrets her choice of career (well, how could she?). "I have a lot of friends who are activists," she says, "but I couldn’t dedicate my life to fighting. I’m so impressed by the people who fight every day to raise awareness, to open people’s eyes, to stand for causes. But I would be too sad. I need to be creative."
That need is bred in her genes, as the daughter of an actress and a director. "I was just fascinated by my parents’ life," she says. "There was a lot of energy in the house, and then I started to have my own experience of acting. Right away I felt it was something that was really strong in me. The first time was in a summer camp. I did this play at the end, and I felt something that shook me. I was playing an old housekeeper and the reaction of the audience, people laughing, and then coming up to me afterwards... That was the first time I felt it would be my life." She describes herself as a sensitive, ‘strange’ child; she was drawn to imaginary stories and used to play at being Greta Garbo in her bedroom.
"I really thought, when I was a kid, that I would never be happy with myself, because I hated myself so much," she says frankly. "I was more than shy, I was socially disturbed. I didn’t understand human beings’ behaviour... I think that’s why I became an actress, because I needed to understand."
She attended the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique d’Orléans, where her father taught. "The first year was horrible," she says. "And then I began to meet people who I was able to open up to, and I started to change a little."
For the past 13 years, Cotillard has been in a relationship with Guillaume Canet, who starred in The Beach, and directed as well as acted in the acclaimed thriller Tell No One. They have two children, Marcel, who is nine, and three-year-old Louise, with whom they quarantined in the family home in the South of France. "I found this period very interesting," muses Cotillard. "For everybody to be locked down, and for time to stop, I found something of a relief. I felt really connected to the rest of the world, and I think many human beings felt that way." She smiles mischievously. "No FOMO any more! But I also had a lot of thoughts about the world, about what’s going on socially and environmentally."
Had the coronavirus crisis not intervened, she would have been travelling for work. "I had this movie that was supposed to go to Cannes and didn’t, so I had extra time off, which I really appreciated. I did a lot of cooking, I spent almost my whole time with the kids. It was amazing, it was a gift, that was the positive side of it."
In the past, she says, she felt it was "weird to be happy in such a dark and tumultuous world. There was always something in my mind saying, don’t be too happy. But this year I thought, no, you have to allow yourself to send out this positive energy... it’s good, and it’s not only good for you. I can see it around in the people I share the happiness with. It’s about the bliss of just being alive."
Cotillard turns 45 at the end of September and says she enjoys getting older "in my inner self... the experience of living and being more and more aware of myself, my relationships and the world." Physically, though, it is a different matter. "I have to be honest, it’s disturbing," she confesses. "As an actor, you see yourself very close up, you see the changes, and I’m not enjoying it. This is going to be a work of acceptance... but it’s the way it is." I stare at the screen, trying in vain to spot a line in her smooth skin, a shadow under her eyes; but as befits a true icon, her allure is timeless.
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