to fit Piaf's life into a single film would be like trying to fit Paris
into a bottle, as they say in France. Rather than seeking to cover the
legendary French singer Edith Piaf's life from start to finish, Olivier
Dahan, who wrote and directed La Vie en Rose, attempted, rather
successfully, to convey Piaf's dramatic artistic force by skipping back
and forth between events in her childhood and early years, her professional
career and her last years.
World War One in Belleville, a slummy suburb of Paris (rendered famous
in the adorable animation Les Triplettes de Belleville), Piaf
was largely abandoned by her parents in the first ten years of her life:
her father is off at the front and her mother leaves her with her own
crazy and alcoholic mother. When Edith’s father returns at the
end of the war and finds her at the mercy of this old witch, he takes
her to his own mother. As a contortionist in a travelling circus, he
cannot possibly look after such a young child. Although, or perhaps
because, his mother is sane and sober, as the Madame of a brothel, she
is not immediately amenable to having the small girl around. Edith stays
however and at once becomes the 'petite cherie' of girls of the house.
They say you are who you are by age seven, and these first few scenes,
interrupted by ones of Piaf's early singing, aim to convey the sheer
trauma that was Piaf's childhood, while also conveying its moments of
unadulterated, exuberant joy. This is a childhood filled with fun and
ill health, sin and faith, horror and beauty, loss and love.
Loss is the leitmotif of Piaf's life: her parents, her child, her mentor,
her great love... She was a great artist with a mesmerising voice, a
voice that has been described as ‘ripping your heart out so thoroughly
you can hold it in your hands’. Yet, as much as she worked at
her craft and perfected her talent, the source of this talent is her
ability to pour such emotion into her songs. She sang because she so
badly needed an outlet and a crowd. Her intensity came from a life of
extremes, where she responded to recurrent tragedies by losing herself
in the pleasures she found in singing, but also men, alcohol and drugs.
While the film manages to convey this admirably, this is largely down
to Marion Cotillard as Piaf. Her transformation is astounding. Her interpretation
of Piaf makes you feel you've met the singer personally by the time
you leave the cinema. It isn't simply the admirable make-up job of Didier
Lavergne, or Cotillard's mimetism of Piaf's every tic and attitude,
but her voice. Although the main singing performances are dubbed, the
actor manages to find Piaf's voice and recreate it for her dialogues.
The accent, the intonation, Piaf's gutsiness and fiery character all
come through. Cotillard says that although this role scared her more
than any other, for the first time in her acting career, even when she
was a ‘nervous wreck’, she never once considered the possibility
of quitting. It is clear watching her in the part that she adopted Piaf,
the good and the bad, and to give up would not have been so much letting
the director down as the singer herself, whose presence Cotillard says
she felt throughout the filming.
And it must have got very difficult indeed. Cotillard plays Edith from
early adulthood until her death at only 47, but by then, Piaf looked
like a very sick old lady. The range of human emotions she must cover
is the broadest imaginable: from unquenchable joy and love to unbearable
heartbreak and grief, from the spotlight centre stage in Carnegie Hall
to a deathbed in a dark room where the curtains have been drawn for
the last time.
Cotillard is helped in this by the crème de la crème of
French actors: Gerard Depardieu as the agent who discovers Piaf and
gives her that name, Catherine Allegret - the stepdaughter of one of
Piaf's lovers, Yves Montand, who is left out of the film - as the Madame
grandmother with a well hidden soft spot, Emmanuelle Seigner, hooker
with the heart of gold who looks after little Edith as though she were
her own, all bring their own stature to the film. Manon Chevallier and
Pauline Burlet who play Edith aged 5 and 10 are also incredible.
Although the chronological jumps backwards and forwards are unnerving
at first and seem to create more confusion about this legend of a woman,
the uneasiness passes as more pieces of the puzzle come together. Still,
it is one of the few films where you walk out wishing it had been longer
and more aspects of Piaf's life had been considered. There is no reference
to the Second World War, despite a good number of the scenes taking
place during it or immediately in its wake. Although this may have been
a deliberate effort not to overcomplicate the film, one can't help the
sensation that perhaps too much of it ended up on the film editor's
Nonetheless, the end of the film will not come too soon for many. The
intensity of Piaf in a bottle will have had the tears flowing for most.