If someone were to ask you to sum up the sound of France, your answer would probably be the haunting voice of Edith Piaf. Now, a new film looks set to bring her back to worldwide prominence, and introduce her to a new generation. Forget the antics of Britney and Paris -if Piaf were alive today, she would have kept them all out of the tabloids.
What a story it is and every bit as vibrant as the songs she inhabited. Brought up in her grandmother’s brothel, she begins by singing for centimes on the streets. Love comes along only to be tragically ripped away. And at the height of her acclaim, she died at only 47, addicted to morphine and looking a good 40 years older.
In La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan presents what he calls an impressionistic portrait. ‘The image most people have of her is that of the fragile icon in a little black dress of the 1950s and 1960s. I wanted to look at a very different, less distinct person that I had seen in a little-known picture of her, as a young woman, before she was called Edith Piaf.’
His non-linear approach is often confusing, however – many characters are undeveloped or unexplained and we skip time periods. Much of her eventful life is glossed over, but then, to include it all would probably have taken a whole mini series.
But the film is saved by two things. The cinematography is ravishing, the atmosphere acting as almost another character. And above all, there is Marion Cotillard. It’s a towering central performance that captures every nuance, even down to the fingernails. Her transformation from glamorous actress to the tiny Piaf as she becomes increasingly stopped and ravaged is truly astonishing. If an American actress were to pull off such a feat, an Oscar would be assured -although I anticipate a goodly number of accolades and awards coming her way, I doubt it will be enough for that final recognition.
She doesn’t shy away from all the ugliness of Piaf’s character either, pulling off capricious, callous and wretched and still keeping our admiration. Her meticulous lip-synching brings to life songs mostly done by Piaf herself, although some of the earlier songs are rendered by Jil Aigrot because the recordings (from the 1930s and 1940s) were too degraded in quality to be used.
The whole cast put in full, believable performances, including Sophie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seignier and Gerard Depardieu, as the man who first recognised the power of her talent. That power is still able to bring an audience to tears, as is evidenced by the film’s finale Je Ne Regrette Rien, which cannot fail to bring a tear to the hardest heart. A film not to be missed. Formidable!