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Marion Cotillard

‘Contagion’ Doesn’t Want to Reach Out and Touch You

Kathleen Murphy’s review of Contagion was written for Movies/MSN at the time of the film’s original release.

Steven Soderbergh’s super-creepy Contagion does for pandemic what the Oscar-winning director did for drug Traffic back in 2000. Mimicking the insidious spread of coke-related ills, he tracks a lethal little virus—bat-borne, then transmitted to a piglet—as it metastasizes out of a friendly handshake to world-killer. A panic-worthy journey for sure, but no need to buckle up for fast-cutting, tension-building, apocalyptic action­­—or anything else that might significantly raise your blood pressure. Less hysterical than hushed, more numbing than terrifying, Contagion‘s closer to documentary—an imagined record of how global citizenry might realistically react to monumental crisis.

Says Soderbergh: “We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up, the more unsettling it becomes.”

Accordingly, the director paints his plague canvas with a muted palette that leaches heat and color out of potential melodrama; sometimes the very air seems dimmed, weighted with invisible death. Chronicling the mundane, almost slow-motion process of coping with pandemic, the movie’s narrative engine runs cool rather than hot—in contrast to Outbreak (1995), in which mild-mannered scientists morph into action-heroes, questing for curative antibodies while fighting off trigger-happy generals.

Contagion has more in common with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1971): Set underground in hyper-sterile laboratory environs, that chilly movie’s action was mostly of the cerebral kind, featuring a quartet of dispassionate experts glued to microscopes, computer screens and observation windows, looking to decode a deadly, alien virus.

Similarly, Contagion‘s way of picturing catastrophic events is three clicks removed, like peering into a microscope, watching cellular warfare under glass. The cast is overstocked with attractive A-listers—Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, et al.—but none stands out.

Soderbergh pulls a Hitchcock (Psycho) by offing a lead early on; during the autopsy, that actress’s iconic features are literally peeled away. He continues to subvert our pleasure in movie stars as warm, beautiful bodies, objects of subliminal desire: how can we fantasize about intimacy when human contact—an embrace, a kiss, a sigh—is fatal? Their charisma banked, the stars—potential Petri dishes of infection just like regular people—deliberately do not shine.

Quarantine puts the kibosh on those staples of the traditional disaster movie, loner heroics or Capra-esque communal activism. Emerging momentarily as a smart, no-nonsense healthcare organizer, the striking Winslet soon falls out of focus, another ravaged body in a gymnasium full of anonymous dead. Cotillard, as a World Health Organization doc, gets kidnapped in China, her ransom a supply of the curative vaccine. Distinctly unthrilling, this plotline peters out in anticlimax, an exercise in futility.

As End Times loom, Soderbergh spotlights, almost clinically, human selfishness and short-sightedness, the metabolism of everyday life. When a maverick researcher cracks the viral code, a rival scientist blurts, “Now he’ll publish!” Nurses strike, bureaucrats argue budget, funeral homes turn away the dead, the government (as usual) fiddles while Rome burns. Action-movie addicts will jones in vain for some bigger-than-life villainy to offer escape from Contagion‘s enervating realism. 

Reprising the structure if not the tempo of Traffic, Soderbergh deploys a network of narrative threads to catch the inexorable spread and impact of infection: from the globe-trotting Patient Zero, to global health organizations desperately trying to find a cure, to foodlines on the homefront. The Internet, potentially a secure lifeline for the world’s isolated souls, spreads another kind of lethal virus. A popular blogger, aptly named Krumwiede, unleashes a highly infectious meme about government–Big Pharma conspiracy and a cure called Forsythia. What’s this cross between Andrew Breitbart and Michael Moore after? A killing in hedge fund futures! (Krumwiede’s played by a snaggle-toothed Jude Law, recalling his rodent self in Road to Perdition.)

Soderbergh does provide some warm spots in his low-key vision of humanity in extremis. A father (Matt Damon), bereft of wife and little boy, guards his daughter from contagion, sealing her off from even gestures of love. A high-level staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (Laurence Fishburne) gives a janitor’s kid his own allotted vaccine. And, of course, there’s one act of world-saving heroism—but hey, the lady’s hoping for a Nobel Prize. These moments don’t pack much emotional punch, seeming almost like afterthoughts in Soderbergh’s chilly laboratory of catastrophe.

Though far from a likeable movie, Contagion‘s admirable as a highly controlled, verging-on-Kubrickian exercise in directorial vision and style. What’s most disturbing about this low-energy disaster movie is how tellingly it taps into America’s current angst, the fear of a slow decline that can’t be cured, all our heroes having succumbed to a plague of Krumwiedes.

Review: Macbeth

Michael Fassbender

Out of all of Shakespeare’s back catalog, Macbeth has perhaps been the best cinematically served, with such Hall of Famers as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski applying their distinctive worldviews to the material. (Polanski’s 1971 version, his first film following the death of Sharon Tate, is still an amazingly tangible, all-encompassing ode to mud and blood and smoke and shit.) From the first frames of relative newcomer Justin Kurzel’s adaptation, it becomes apparent that his method of putting his stamp on the prose is to, well, ruthlessly pare away much of the prose. While the Big Scenes are rendered with a ravishing starkness, the connective tissue that’s allowed to remain tends to fall away into a low-toned dirge. Even those viewers unfamiliar with the source material may sometimes feel like they’re flipping through a brutally gorgeous set of CliffsNotes.

Continue reading at The Stranger

Videophiled: ‘The Immigrant’

ImmigrantThe Immigrant (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – Marion Cotillard earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the Dardenne Brothers’s Two Days, One Night but I think her best performance of 2014 is in this film. She plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant in 1921 New York who, turned away by relatives, is dependent on a mercenary burlesque producer and pimp (played with the cheap charm of a low-rent impresario by Joaquin Phoenix) for her freedom and for the money to get his sister out of quarantine on Ellis Island. (It is, of course, for bribes.)

If you think you know where this film is going based on that premise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The film, co-written and directed by James Gray, isn’t just about her degrading ordeal (which isn’t explicitly shown but is made awfully clear). The initially shy beauty steels herself to the hard times of life on the margins of society, disconnecting her emotions not just from her work but her every interaction in this unforgiving culture, and Cotillard invests Ewa with the fiery will to survive and save her little sister from deportation. Phoenix, meanwhile, creates a fascinating figure of the pimp Bruno, chasing the American dream in the shadows and falling in love with Ewa as she hardens with every day on the streets. Jeremy Renner co-stars as a stage magician and rival for Ewa’s affections, though his underwritten character is easily overpowered by the vivid and nuanced portraits by Cotillard and Phoenix.

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Film Review: Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard

There is only one situation in Two Days, One Night—no subplots, no vast canvas. But filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid With the Bike) need only this one situation to somehow speak of the entire world and what it means to be human in the early 21st century. The situation is this: Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has been on medical leave from her workplace, owing to depression. She has a low-level job in a manufacturing plant in Belgium. She’s ready to go back to work, but management has decided to cut her position. According to labor laws, her 16 fellow employees can vote to keep her on the job—but the boss has offered them each a 1,000-euro bonus if they agree to lay off Sandra. She has a weekend to plead her case to each co-worker.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

‘Rust and Bone’

Rust and Bone helmer Jacques Audiard enjoys a reputation head and shoulders above that of the guys who made The Intouchables, another French import screened in American theaters this year. But that cheerfully manipulative fairy tale about the unlikely bonding between a rich quadriplegic and his earthy Senegalese minder came to mind during Rust and Bone, Audiard’s much shrewder film about the rehabilitation of mismatched lovers respectively handicapped by missing limbs and a deficiency of humanity.

Mattias Schoenaerts, Marion Cotillard

Edging into Intouchables territory, Audiard massages our emotional responses with an all-too-practiced hand. Even his mix of socio-economic “realism” with soap opera feels calculated, an unconvincing facsimile of the raw authenticity that made his Oscar-nommed A Prophet (2010) so compelling. At bottom, R&B is a Gallic tearjerker about the existential fall and ascent of two good-looking “cripples.” By dwelling on the hand-to-mouth lives of a beleaguered French underclass, Audiard tries to toughen up—and validate—the sentimentality of his material.

The Intouchables was saved from terminal corniness—and offensive racial stereotyping—by charismatic actors (François Cluzet and Omar Sy) who played it straight, rarely stooping to the level of the script. Similarly, it is star power that elevates R&B‘s often shamelessly schematic narrative: Marion Cotillard (Oscar awarded for La Vie en Rose) and Belgian comer Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) command our rapt gaze from start to finish. Their very different styles of physical performance claim frame space as effortlessly as that of the great orcas that Cotillard’s Stephanie trains.

Continue reading at MSN Movies

Inception: It’s All in Your Mind

Inception (Warner)

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a caper film that heists dreams instead of treasure, is surely the most cerebral action thriller to become a blockbuster. It’s a genre film that reshuffles the rules and lays them out in a mind-bending pattern. Playing out on multiple planes of dream reality, it’s also another Nolan film to completely reimagine the world of cause and effect. But rather than tell a story, Nolan builds a construct and then plays within that construct. This script is more designed than written, the film constructed as much as directed, and that becomes all the more evident on repeat viewings.

Leonardo DiCaprio faces the dream

This is architecture as cinema, on every level: Narrative, conceptual, symbolic, visual, with story and characters sacrificed to the density of rules and limitations of  fantastical (meta)physical laws. It is so dense with angles and layers and details of meaning that I don’t think there is a line of dialogue in the film that does not somehow serve the exposition. Inception is so high concept that it becomes all concept and puzzle and narrative play at the sacrifice of story. By that I mean it foregrounds plot (a series of events) over story (the journey of a character).

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the team leader of this psych-squad with a simple motivation (clear his name and get back home), and a head case on a level all his own. The backstory explains how he lost his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), in experiments in dreamtime, and as a result lost his life, putting him on the run as a wanted man unable to see his children. She now haunts his psyche as a phantom turned nemesis. You could call her the ghost in the machine but really Mal is a symbol of guilt, loss and self-blame as an avatar, a manifestation of his own psyche punishing itself in the most effective way it knows: not simply to remind Cobb of what happened to her, but to sabotage his capers.

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