Director: Olivier Dahan
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Édith Giovanna Gassion, aka Édith Piaf, is perhaps the best-known and unique singer France has ever produced, and seems to many to be the embodiment of her home town of Paris. Her fabled story of rising from the gutter to the height of wealth and fame, her fast, bohemian lifestyle, and her defiant, iconic song “Non, Je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”) made her the stuff of fascination and legend during her lifetime and even now, nearly 45 years after her death at the age of 47. Her recordings have been featured in many films, including the 1952 version of Sabrina, Saving Private Ryan, and even Babe: Pig in the City. She had roles in several films, including the Jean Renoir classic French Cancan (1954), and has been the subject of documentaries and at least one other feature film, Édith et Marcel (1983). Now, a fairly young director, Olivier Dahan, has attempted the gargantuan feat of trying to tell her whole life story. With only 140 minutes in which to tell it, alas, he was doomed to failure.
The film is told in the now-familiar scrambling of scenes from various points in the life of the central character. There is no present in which Piaf seems to flash back to the earlier events of her life—presumably the present for any viewer of the film is the real present, and the film happens entirely in the past. I consider this a novel way to deal with the problem of time for audiences of today and tomorrow, but I’m not sure it serves us in establishing a link with Piaf as our guide through her own life. In this case, we really need her.
Despite this structure, we do get a rough chronological account of her life, beginning with an image of a young Édith (Manon Chevallier) crying while her mother (Clotilde Courau) sings in the streets, hoping to be discovered as a great talent. Eventually, Édith’s father Louis (Jean-Paul Rouve) returns from the Great War and, finding his daughter sickly and living in poverty, takes her away with him. He leaves her with his mother (Josette Ménard) while he goes off to reestablish himself on the circus circuit as a contortionist. His mother is a madam, though little Édith doesn’t understand anything—even the johns who tie up their whores or mutilate them with surgical instruments—but the kindness of the women around her. One of their number, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) becomes especially attached to the little girl and carts her around as though they were mother and daughter. Slowly, Édith regains a bit of her health, though she has been stunted for life by failure-to-thrive (the real Piaf stood only 4’8″ tall), and learns how to smile a bit. She goes blind from conjunctivitis, but time and prayers to St. Theresa heal her. Naturally, Louis returns to reclaim his daughter, and a traumatic parting between Titine and Édith ensues.
Now 10-year-old Édith (Pauline Burlet) must adapt to life on the road. Her moments of girlish joy at watching the circus are stopped abruptly by the cruel circus manager, who tells her she must earn her keep or be left behind. Thankfully, this episode is cut short by Louis, who tells the manager to stuff it and goes out on his own as a street performer. Of course, times are hard, but during one performance at which Édith is holding the hat for contributions, the audience asks, and her father pushes her, to perform. She sings the French national anthem in a strong and emotional way, and the approval and contributions from the crowd pour in.
We next encounter Édith (Marion Cotillard) as a wild 20 year old, roaming the streets of Paris with her friend Mômone (Sylvie Testud). This time it is Édith who does all the performing while Mômone passes the hat. An impresario named Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) hears Édith as she sings in a fashionable part of Paris. He gives her his card and tells her to come to Gerny’s, a nightclub he runs, to audition. She gets a spot as a featured performer, only after Leplée redubs her Piaf, “The Little Sparrow,” and wows the audience with her distinctive rendering of a wide range of familiar French songs. She starts to make a name for herself in Paris.
Édith probably would have been content to sing at Gerny’s forever, where she got adoration, alcohol, and money, were it not for the people in her past who still had a hold on her. It appears she has a pimp who demands money from her, even after she starts singing at Gerny’s. One day, Leplée is found dead in his office, a possible gangland hit, and Édith is implicated. Although she mourns perhaps more than most the loss of her “Daddy,” her name is dragged through the tabloids. She remembers a man who gave her his card long ago. She rings him up.
Enter Raymond Asso (Marc Barbé), the cliché taskmaster who will beat the streets out of Édith and make her Piaf. Her accompanist during her deprogramming/reprogramming is Marguerite Monnot (Marie-Armelle Deguy), a well-known songwriter who previously paid her respects to Édith at Gerny’s and who will come to pen many of Piaf’s best songs. Although Édith resists, as the cliché would have her do, she becomes the artiste Asso demands and—after a bout of stage fright before the show—debuts at Paris’ premier music hall, the Bobino, to a standing ovation.
After this grueling birth of Venus, Édith plunges into the role of Piaf. Piaf demands champagne, the best black frocks for her performances, her ever-present cross around the neck, and an entourage of ever-changing characters. We are threaded forward and backward in time through various momentous occasions of her life—her opening in New York City in which only a favorable review by critic/composer Virgil Thomson ensures her success; her meeting with Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Silhol); her brief, intense affair with married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins); her intense grief when Cerdan’s plane crashes; her later years as a physical wreck and morphine addict following severe injury in a car accident; her triumphal return to the stage in 1960, during which she debuts “Non, Je ne regrette rien.”
Various constants keep us anchored throughout the film—her devotion to St. Theresa; Mômone, whose lesbian fixation on Édith keeps her true until Édith falls deeply in love with Cerdan; and, of course, the artistry of Piaf. At her death, we see her heart’s devotions are still those of the abused little girl we cringed from at first and then came to love. Isn’t that what Piaf is to most of her admirers, after all?
It’s apparent from this review that the fast-forward through a life as rich and complex as Piaf’s must, by necessity, be done in the movie shorthand known as cliché. We are not allowed to have any ambiguous feelings about Piaf for long. Yes, she drinks too much and hangs out with shady characters who may have killed her “Daddy,” but what a victim she was! Yes, she takes morphine, but she was injured. Yes, she sleeps with a married man, but it’s true love. The film doesn’t let us know just how much she slept around—she’d screw just about anything that moved and was almost certainly Marlene Dietrich’s lover. It doesn’t tell us that Yves Montand was her discovery and her lover—he’s one line of dialog in this film. Likewise, the fact that she had a daughter who died at the age of 2 is completely ignored until the very end of the movie in an unconvincing deathbed “regrette.” The film completely skips World War II, a controversial period for Piaf because she sang for the Nazis. Some postwar revelations that she helped some prisoners of the Nazis escape mitigated her crime of collaboration among the French, but doubts still remain.
In other words—we have a typical, whitewashed biopic, heavy on the pathos.
On the upside, we have incredibly magnetic performances from all of the actresses who play Piaf, as well as the supporting cast. We have a magnificent first third, which spooling out slowly, allows for relationships between characters to form. And, of course, the reason any Piaf fan would go see this film—we have the incredible performances of Piaf herself dubbed into the action of the film. Unfortunately, the lightning speed with which Dahan has to race to get through Piaf’s life leaves no room for any character development or interactions, and indeed, creates a lot of confusion about who the characters are. Piaf is center stage throughout, but that just is not enough. Yes, we love her, but without a real connection to the life around her, she’s just an image, not a person, and all the incidents in the film just performances, not real moments. Might as well watch the documentaries in which she appears or, better yet, listen to her recordings. We also assume that her dissipated life was the cause of her death rather than the real cause—cancer—and that’s kind of a slur on her memory.
Diehard Piaf fans will enjoy the music of this film and the chance to pretend that they really saw her perform them, so good is Cotillard’s impersonation. For a true understanding of Piaf’s life, however, this film simply does not deliver.