Marion Cotillard cries. She bends over, she presses her hands on her knees, she tilts her head down and she patiently awaits the shudders, which come in quick spasms like an alcoholic’s post-Denny’s nausea. She vomits emotion. She wraps her arms around her shoulders to cradle each tremor. She teeters through every gulp of air. She weeps into a pillow. She gazes forlornly out of windows. She forlornly gazes the shit out of windows. She melts those goddamned windows. Then, a few scenes later, she cries some more.

And we’re still transfixed.

Watching Marion Cotillard cry — with all those little tourniqueted tics and red-faced convulsions and mascara-streaked paroxysms — is a mythical thing, kind of like witnessing Tom Brady connect on a 60-yarder while being thronged by three J.J.Watt-sized tissue boxes. It’s the hammer she uses while nailing any attention span to any frame the second she steps through it, and ultimately, one of the many reasons her name, over the last 10 years, has become synonymous with scene-stealing, bravura acting.

Scene-stealing can’t be the right word. Can it? Most of the parts she’s taken since 2007 have had first or second billing, so in every sense of the term, she is the consummate leading lady; you’d expect her to be the one with her hands on the reins. She doesn’t steal scenes so much as overpower them, crushing whoever’s sharing screen time underneath the weight of a giant tear duct. They set her up, she spikes some snot right back in their blank face, probably whispering “watch what’s about to happen, bitch” in a soft French accent into their ears, right before the cameras start rolling. But when one takes a step back, when one distances oneself from the emotional water fountain that is Marion Cotillard, then one realizes that this woman is also, perhaps, the only screen presence — male or female — to so perfectly embody despair, in all its nuance, in over a decade.

She’s made a career of it, to the point that watching her performances can be an interesting dissection project — one that gives us a glimpse at the anatomy behind effectively playing sadness on film. What lets great actors pull off weepy? What makes their emotional heft resonate across the screen? And what, specifically, allows us to pin our own thoughts, as wide-ranging and ephemeral as they may be, to what’s often nothing more than just a brief closeup of another human being’s face? The first step to these answers lies in the role that earned Cotillard an Oscar, thrusting her into the Hollywood limelight from which she’s methodically slunk in and out of consideration ever since.

In “La Vie en Rose,” Cotillard plays 20th century musical icon Edith Piaf, and for most of the film, that’s all she does — perfectly mimicking mannerisms, capturing the singer’s slight posture or her imposing voice. She’s the sponge sitting at movie’s center in the way so many other actors have sat the center of so many other biopics about so many other celebrated luminaries: what Daniel Day-Lewis was to “Lincoln” or David Oyelowo to “Selma,” Cotillard is to “La Vie en Rose.” She’s there in virtually every single frame, the gravity around which the scenes coalesce and the script revolves. Still, I’m sure some corny acting handbook somewhere expounds the reasons why “mimicry can never mimic great acting” — you need vulnerability for that — and it isn’t until the latter half of the film that we get a thorough first stab at those questions I posed earlier.

When Piaf, after years of attachment issues, learns of her husband’s death, she breaks down. It’s an obvious response to an obvious, time-tested development, yet how Cotillard embodies it is nothing short of brilliant. Basic logic suggests she could have gone one of two ways with it. A: balls to the wall wailing. B: catatonic sorrow. But Cotillard is smarter than that. She incorporates shades of the melodrama and confusion that have been coloring the film thus far, so what we see on screen is that much deeper, that much more poignant than an “obvious” choice.

It may seem like plain sobbing, but what’s truly intriguing about the portrayal are her hands, though more so, her big, doe-like eyes. The hands shudder, vibrate with an intensity that evokes a woman in maudlin shock, or to some degree, rifling through some long-lost collection of memories. Her eyes accompany this point and move throughout the frame, searching for what they know is gone. The result is a potpourri of instinct that feeds on open nerve endings and rawness, melodrama and confusion. It’s the work of someone not just pulling off weepiness, but owning it without even an inkling of reservation. It’s as cathartic as acting can hope to be.

Cotillard sheds the brashness of that performance five years later in “Rust and Bone,” a film in which she’s cast as an orca trainer who loses both her legs after an on-the-job accident. It’s the type of role you’d expect the actress to shine in. Impossible odds? Check. Top billing? Check. Room to experiment? Check. Crying? Check, check, check. What you don’t expect is silence, and that silence is exactly what Cotillard uses to bookend each of her scenes. In the hospital room, after she learns about the amputations, we see her sobbing, then lulled into a blissful, resigned sleep that carries over her demeanor across the movie. Sitting across from a friend, discussing what used to be her sex life, Cotillard takes pains to ensure that same silence is evident — a sort of stressed fortitude that feels almost dozy next to her work in “La Vie en Rose.”

The scene works because Cotillard’s face feels blank. The half-open eyes, uncurved mouth and pupils that feel lost in reverie are anything but — they click in harmony to let the audience project onto them. When watching the exchange, it’s not so much as waiting for the specific, delineated response we’ve been trained to look for as it is letting our own thoughts wash over the screen.

The key to depression, and by extension the key to despair, is numbness, a vacuum of personality that Cotillard can balance with virtuoso emoting seemingly at will. That tight-rope strings together the entirety of “Two Days, One Night,” in which her character struggles, heaves between two worlds, the first marked by tearful sobbing and the second by an acceptance withheld until the film’s final moments.

The movie is a conduit of dualities. The frames are often obviously divided down the middle by a line to separate Cotillard and the person she is talking to. The dialogue itself is repetitive so audiences can easily chalk out the delineations between “saying” and “feeling” that the filmmakers intend for us to cling to. The central performance becomes a combination of the actress’s work in “La Vie en Rose” and “Rust” — we’re walking toward the silence, but through a minefield of instinct, a river of apathy. Our guide is Marion Cotillard, the woman who’s made a career out of this journey. The ambassador of despair.

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