For the young ‘uns in our midst, I feel the time has come to expose the uninitiated to a trunk full of the cool. A Long Time Ago, on a mystical planet far, far away, lived a poor and tiny Gallic mite named Edith Gassion. In an effort to alleviate her extreme financial discomfort, Edith perched on the street corners of Paris, and in a voice entirely bigger than her own 4’ 8”; she would belt her heart out for passersby in hopes of catching loose change tossed her way. You couldn’t hold a girl like Edith down though, and sure enough, she gets discovered singing away on her street corner, has her named changed (- Hello, Piaf!), and the power and brilliance of her voice raises her to international fame. Sadly, the ghosts of her torrid, impoverished past are never far from her, and her decline from drug addiction and cancer that resulted in her death at the age of 47, only added to her legend.
Phew! That there’s quite a nutshell of quite a life. Apparently, French movie studios had minimal interest in representing this national icon of France, and there was previously only one feature film made about Piaf’s life (- Edith et Marcel – 1983). Luckily, director Olivier Dahan is made of sterner stuff. His portrait of the life of Edith Piaf is a wonder. It is a remarkable study in baroque storytelling. Neither lionising nor demonising his subject, Dahan isn’t content to lean on the well-known stories of Piaf’s life; her association with celebrities, and her alleged tyrannical behaviour around those closest to her. He proceeds with Piaf’s story (- he also wrote the script and adapted the screenplay) as if he had never heard of her before. There was an authenticity in the story he tells that makes what is essentially a period tale of a woman who first rose to notice in the 1930’s and died in 1967, as gripping and current as if it had happened yesterday. Dahan’s unusual technique narrating in of a sort of inside out figure-8 pattern is gripping in itself: Beginning from Piaf on stage in the 1950’s, to her traumatic, awful childhood, her youth as a street singer and her prime on the nightclub circuit, to her shocking last days resembling an ill, fragile 74 year-old, instead of the 47 years she was at her death. Dahan weaves the different time frames in and out of each other, every switch in time revealing something more about Edith and keeping us absorbed in the intensity of her life. Dahan’s use of colour palettes also adds to the storytelling, as the early days of Edith’s life are all shown in tones of faded sepia and dust-bowl brown, and as her age and fortunes progress the colours brighten and intensify. The scenes in 1940’s New York with her lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan, are sleek and glossy, and scenes of her joyride across the sunny Palm Springs desert in a convertible are saturated with colour as to be nearly blinding. Washed out watery blue tones signify older Edith, when the ravages of morphine addiction and illness have taken their toll.
Marion Cotillard plays Edith from her teenage years, singing for spare change on street corners, up through her final days. Hers is an amazing performance and a remarkable feat. Not only does Mlle. Cotillard not cavil at playing the troubled icon, but she jumps into Piaf’s skin, giving depth and dimension to the legend. Piaf’s physical appearance was as distinct as her voice; the diminutive stature (- not helped by a self-conscious hunch, which seemed equal parts rheumatism, and waiting for life to deal her the next blow), the whiplash brows over the huge saucer eyes; the frail body that looked like a misplaced breeze could knock her over. Cotillard gets it all down, inhabits Piaf’s characteristics so much so that you lose Cotillard behind Edith. We see the origin of Piaf’s expressive stage presence, Cotillard’s arm movements are signature, but never pastiche. Her stance during Edith’s singing is sturdy as if the act of having that powerful voice run through Piaf’s frail body would be too much for her.
Cotillard’s progression from brash, street urchin Edith, to successful, sophisticated world-renown chanteuse, to the ailing, aged-before her time Edith in her last years is astonishing. One of Piaf’s most famous songs was entitled “Non, je ne regrette rien”(- No, I regret nothing), and clearly it served a motto for both director Dahan and Marion Cotillard for how this woman was going to be rendered. The note that Cotillard strikes throughout the film is in showing us Piaf’s raging passion for life; and in that, Cotillard finds the core of Edith underneath her famous characteristics, reaching down to the person who made her way through a difficult life the best way she knew how, and the result is this portrayal is remarkable, gutsy, and true. Even though Piaf’s life was the stuff of Dickens’ novels (- with healthy dashes of Poe and Runyon), she never wallows in a moment of self-pity. There is a moment when the older Edith, sickly and bedridden, says to a confidante that she’s in this state because “I overdid it”. Never in that scene do you feel that Edith is sad or remorseful for the life that she’s lived, or for the abuses she allowed drink and drugs to render to her body and it’s a powerful piece of insight into the formidable woman. Marion Cotillard gives the performance of a lifetime, channeling La Môme, and fearlessly sinks her teeth and everything else she has into it. The monumental scene where Edith discovers the love of her life has perished in a plane crash on his way to see her will knock you for a loop. She tears it up, yo. I hope Cotillard’s tour-de-force performance is remembered come Oscar time.
The startling passage of time for Edith Piaf was made flesh not only by Marion Cotillard’s wonderful performance, but by some amazing makeup and hair stylists. These artists bring us Edith in her dewy teenage youth, perfect Piaf’s 1940’s sophistication, and shock us with Edith’s premature aging and the pallor of the cancer that eventually claimed her. At no point does the makeup for Piaf look anything other than utterly convincing, giving Cotillard’s performance a sturdy foundation.
According to interviews I conducted with both Olivier Dahan and Marion Cotillard, there was initially not a lot of interest in making this film. It took a lot of work to create financial support for La Vie En Rose, because as Dahan says, “There was a lot of people telling us, ‘It’s too old, it’s like a dusty picture about an old singer’”. Well, La Vie En Rose has proven to be a huge box office hit in Piaf’s homeland (- La Môme was its title over there).
Artistically and creatively, the film is a triumph and a fitting tribute to the life of a great artist.
~ Mighty Ganesha
June 10th, 2007
© 2006-2017 The Diva Review.com
(Courtesy of Picturehouse)