As I told a friend of mine hot on the heels of my first viewing of this great film: I’m not surprised Marion Cotillard won the best actress Oscar – what I am surprised at is that it was considered any kind of an upset. WOW. Cotillard’s personal sense of scale is a wonder – it would have been understandable for her to zoom past Edith Piaf’s own excesses (alcohol, heroin, and, after a devastating car crash, morphine) and take the opportunity to chew scenery relentlessly and shamelessly. But she never does. The drunken blow-outs, the tragedies, the triumphs, all the events that define the standard filmed biography for the Ray Charleses and Johnny Cashes and Billie Hollidays and Mrs. Norman Maines are handled here with unerring emotional precision. She’s helped immensely by director Olivier Dahan and editor Richard Marizy.
Dahan’s period-jumping crazy-quilt keeps the story emotionally balanced. Told chronologically, most audiences wouldn’t have lasted a half an hour. Edith was poverty-stricken and unhealthy throughout her childhood, dumped in a French whorehouse by her ne’er-do-well father to be raised by her grandmother and her, umm, employees. But these episodes are peppered with later scenes of her successes (both fleeting and legend-making), and keep us convinced that, despite her difficulties, Edith was a marvelously self-possessed survivor.
The three men who emerge as Edith’s strongest influences are the impressario Louis Leplée (Gerard Depardieu), later manager Raymond Asso (Marc Barbé) and the boxer (and pig farmer) Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins). Leplée was her first professional club employer, and gave her her first, best break. He was murdered by mobsters, and Piaf was accused of collaborating in his death. Asso revived her career by bringing her out of the nightclubs and onto concert stages, and was a tyrannical coach and director. These rehearsal scenes can be tough to watch, but were probably exactly what she needed. Cerdan arrives in her life at a crucial juncture – a famous heavyweight boxer, he’s a real gentleman who never forgets his own humble roots. (At one time the world champion, he’s nonetheless remembered in film as the frenchman Jake LaMotta takes out in ‘Raging Bull’ in one of that film’s many brutal bouts). The inarguable love of her life, he nonetheless refused to leave his wife and children. She was devastated when he died in a plane crash on his way to see her in New York in 1949. But even with these influential men in her life, on whom she undoubtably depended, make no mistake – Edith was her own self, and as thrilling, inspiring and fascinating an individual and artist as Frida Kahlo, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson
Piaf’s other justly celebrated aspect is, of course, her singing. Standing only 4’10”, she had a gigantic, clarion voice, and, like Billie Holliday, had a bizarrely unique sense of phrasing against the grain of her accompaniment. Cotillard lip-syncs everything against Piaf’s own recordings, but it’s admirably seamless. You literally can’t take your eyes off of her when she’s ‘singing’, as a teenaged busker in Montmartre or as a ravaged diva at the Paris Olympia in the early sixties.
The caveats – it’s a little long – 140 minutes – but I can’t think what they might have trimmed. And it’s no ray of sunshine – ‘La Vie En Rose’ makes ‘Ray’ look like ‘PT-109’. If you don’t like subtitled movies, I can’t help you anyway. Go rent ‘Hoosiers’ again.
But these are undoubtably the big three reasons why Time-Warner/Picturehouse didn’t spend the money to promote this film better. And it’s to their shame. This movie is wonderful.
Highly, highly recommended.