Creatives on the verge

Marion Cotillard

Marion Cotillard might be well-established in France, but in the coming months her international renown will receive a considerable boost from two high-profile films: Olivier Dahan’s “La vie en rose,” in which she plays iconic French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and Ridley Scott’s just-completed “A Good Year,” based on Peter Mayle’s book “A Year in Provence,” in which she’s a Provencal beauty who catches the eye of expat Max Skinner (Russell Crowe).

The roles have the potential to place Cotillard among the international ranks of such French film sirens as Emmanuelle Beart, Audrey Tautou and Eva Green.

The daughter of two stage thesps, the 30-year-old Cotillard began her screen career at 17. While her notoriety has remained manageable, her range is apparently limitless: She excelled as the revenge-bent femme fatale in WWI-set “A Very Long Engagement,” convinced as the WWII incarnation of Jeanne Moreau’s character in “Lisa” and is heartbreakingly sensitive as a shy classical musician in contempo dramedy “You and Me.”

When roles seemed scarce, Cotillard considered upgrading her part-time work for Greenpeace into full-time militancy. Tim Burton tapped her to star as Billy Crudup’s pregnant wife in “Big Fish” just as she was about to defend all the fish (and dolphins and whales) in the sea.

Beauty, talent and a social conscience — consider Cotillard France’s answer to Angelina Jolie without the hoopla.

But now Abkarian is headed for worldwide fame, thanks to his turn as a villain in the new James Bond film, “Casino Royale,” his first role in a major international production.

“I’m a bad guy who loves women and fast cars,” says the thesp. “It’s really a lot of fun.”

He had to repeatedly dye his hair black, then gray, then black again as he shuttled between the sets of the Bond film and Gallic thriller “The Snake,” co-starring Clovis Cornillac and Yvan Attal, as both pics are shooting simultaneously.

Upcoming projects include “The Human Bomb,” in which he plays a revolutionary leader in contemporary France, and a new film with Potter.

Stage direction is another string to Abkarian’s bow: He’ll soon be heading Stateside to direct Tim Robbins’ L.A.-based Actors’ Gang in a production of “Love’s Labours Lost,” due to open this summer. 

To be produced by Nicolas Duval’s Quad (“Je prefere qu’on reste amis”), “Moon” is based on a novel about a man suffering from a midlife crisis who literally begins to live like an animal. Penned by the helmer, “Dark Side of the Moon” is at the financing stage; Aveillan says he’s in talks with several companies in different countries about a co-production.

“I really want to make a film that captures our time,” says Aveillan. “Much of French cinema is about looking at one’s bellybutton. I want to create a film that is a total entertainment experience.”

“Tzameti 13,” which won the Lion for first film at Venice in 2005 and the Grand Jury Prize for world cinema at Sundance this year, was a visually arresting, black-and-white thriller about a naive young man who finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of violence.

Babluani produced the pic himself through his company, Les Films de Strada (a nod to his hero, Fellini), with Palm Pictures set to distribute “Tzameti 13” later this year.

Babluani returned to his native Georgia to shoot “L’Ame perdu des sommets” — made on a bigger budget ($1.6 million) and in color. Starring French thesp Sylvie Testud, “L’Ame” follows the travails of two warring families and the wrongheaded efforts of a group of French tourists to foster a peace between them. It’s set for a September release by MK2.

A riff on the horror genre, “The Ordeal’s” oppressive atmosphere and roguish cast of character actors owe a debt to Du Welz’s hero, Roman Polanski, particularly his 1976 pic “The Tenant.”

Du Welz is currently working on the script of his follow-up pic, “Vinyan,” which will be made in English. The $2.5 million pic, like “The Ordeal,” is being produced by Gallic outfit the Film.

Set to start shooting in Thailand later this year, “Vinyan” is about a young British couple searching for their child after he goes missing in 2004’s devastating tsunami. Again, like “The Ordeal,” there’s trouble among the natives.

“Just a shade less than ‘King Kong,’ ” Mergault marvels, speaking with the slight lisp a speech therapist wisely advised her not to correct, since the sound is pleasingly comical to French ears.

Mergault’s human-sized comedy, about a gruff farmer who belatedly bonds with his Romanian mail-order bride, proves that, at least in Gaul, Stix Pic Clicks with Hix.

Not bad for somebody who stumbled into acting at age 19 (she accompanied a girlfriend to an audition on a lark) and never wanted to direct. Michel Blanc, who plays the farmer, told Mergault her script had a special tone another helmer might have compromised.

“People have pushed me to do things, and so I acquiesce and give them a try,” says Mergault. “All I ever wanted was to have enough money of my own to be truly independent. I have never had even a semblance of a career plan.”

While professing “an utter lack of ambition,” the former secretary’s next screenplay is already written: “Widow at Last!” which, like “Handsome,” starts with an unfortunate accident that kills one spouse.

“Everybody else believes I can do anything,” she says. “I’m the only one who’s ever skeptical about my own abilities.”

Self-doubt? On her it looks good.

ss casting, Jean-Pierre Jeunet hand-picked Ulliel to play Audrey Tautou’s lover in the WWI drama “A Very Long Engagement.”

A shy individual in real life, Ulliel was the perfect fit for Manech, a wet-behind-the-ears youngster who suffers brutal shellshock on the battlefield. His performance was rewarded with a Cesar as best newcomer in 2005.

He should get used to the attention, the way this year is shaping up. First off, Ulliel, who speaks fluent English, will be seen in the Gus Van Sant-helmed segment of “Paris, je t’aime.” He’ll then get the chance to show off his swordplay as “Jacquou le croquant” in Laurent Bouttonat’s adaptation of Eugene Le Roy’s much-loved novel of the same name. Produced by Pathe Renn, “Jacquou” is out in Gaul in October.

Quite possibly the icing on the cake was when he landed the role of a fresh-faced Hannibal Lecter in Peter Webber’s “Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask,” due out in the U.S. in February. Now there’s a role Ulliel can really sink his teeth into.

The movie’s Gallic release earlier this year coincided with nationwide labor strikes that kept most of its target audience of students and teens busy demonstrating in the streets for several weeks. But it is unlikely to run into such obstacles when it rolls out internationally in some 40-odd countries over the next year or so.

Foreign-produced films usually pose a hard sell to Hollywood, but Disney pre-bought this one two years ago and Miramax will release it Stateside, likely in the fall, with Pathe handling U.K. distribution Among those supplying English-language voices are Daniel Craig, Catherine McCormack, Ian Holm and Jonathan Pryce.

As with the helmer’s multi-prize-winning sci-fi short “Maaz,” shot against a bluescreen background, “Renaissance” reveals the gifts Volckman honed in art school and directing pop vids. He attended France’s Ecole Supérieur des Arts Graphiques, and afterward landed work making videos for Gallic rocker Charlélie Couture and Love Bizzare.

“Maaz” took three years to make, “Renaissance” double that, which is why Volckman, 34, is planning to make a live-action film next.

“It might not take quite so long to make,” quips the helmer. The project is being conceived as an English-language action thriller and is pretty much ready to go, say Volckman’s producers at Onyx Films, who are mulling a New Zealand shoot.

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