© 2007 Ray Wong
For the French or those who grew up in the 40s and 50s, they may know who and how big a French chanteuse Edith Piaf was. Even for those of us who are not familiar with her, her life story is a fascinating cautionary tale of love, dreams, excesses and tragedies.
Edith Gassion (Marion Cotillard) is a poor child living on the streets of Paris. Her father, Louis (Jean-Paul Rouve) takes her away from her irresponsible mother and places her with his mother, who is a madam of a brothel. Kind prostitute Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) quickly becomes Edith's surrogate mother, until Louis returns from WWI and takes Edith with him as he finds work in the circus as a contortionist.
Soon Louis and Edith become street performers to make a living. That's when Edith realizes she is a natural singer. Years later, while hustling on the street with her best friend Momone (Sylvie Testud), Edith is discovered by cabaret entrepreneur Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who wants to mold her into a cabaret star -- changes her name to Edith Piaf -- and introduces her to his entertainment friends. One of these friends, Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe), takes her in after Leplee is assassinated. Raymond trains her to become one of France's most celebrated singers.
But nothing is rosy in Edith's turbulent life. Her early drug and alcohol addiction only goes deeper as she finds fame and fortune, which also makes her "difficult" around people who love her, including Momone. She finds true love with married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), and that has to be one of happiest times of her life. Her health, however, becomes to deteriorate after tragedies strike.
Like Helen Mirren in last year's The Queen, Marion Cotillard (A Good Year) is a revelation. Her tour-de-force performance transforms her to embody the heart and soul of the legendary singer. I hardly even recognize the beauty from A Good Year. Throughout the film, Cotillard ages from age 20 to mid-40s, from a blossoming street singer to a decrepit empty shell whose dyed red hair is falling out. Marion Cotillard is mesmerizing and deserves an Oscar nomination, perhaps even a win.
The rest of the cast is wonderful as well. Sylvie Testud (La France) is affecting as Momone. You can really feel her anguish when she realizes her friendship with Edith is gone. She and Cotillard have a genuine onscreen relationship. As the prostitute with a heart of gold, Emmanuelle Seigner (Four Last Songs) is heartbreaking to watch. Gerard Depardieu (Paris, Je T'aime) is wonderfully understated as Louis Leplee, the man who changed Edith's life and became her "Papa." And Jean-Pierre Martins (Empire of Wolves) is handsome and charming as Marcel Cerdan, a perfect match for Cotillard's Edith.
The screenplay by writer-director Olivier Dahan (La Vie Promise -- the Promised Life) and Isabelle Sobelman is rather difficult to follow, at least in the beginning, as the story jumps around in time and bits and pieces of Edith's life is presented in sometimes-unrelated segments. I understand what they intend to do and I appreciate the slow and intricate reveals -- it is fascinating to piece everything together, which makes the ending of the film extremely powerful. However, the editing is very challenging for the audiences, and it takes a while to get used to it. It is simply not the best way to tell a story, and it gives off a somewhat "pretentious" art-house vibe.
To their credit, however, the story makes no apologies and never tries to sugarcoat Edith Piaf's life. She's depicted as a junkie, an alcoholic, an adulterer, and a difficult diva. She is constantly rude and cruel to the people around her. And yet, by watching her life in pieces spanned across time, we understand where she comes from and where she is going, and in truth comes to care about her and feel for her, even though we may not identify with her. We come to understand why her friends are loyal to her, even when she treats them like crap. And that is a challenge -- how can we identify with someone who is brash, selfish, and a total wreck in her personal life? I find myself resisting her while being fascinated by her turbulent life and how her star rises and dims.
In Dahan's hands, the movie has a wonderful, romantic period look to it, and the pacing is good, even for such a personal drama, at more than two hours of running time. Dahan is able to capture the energy, the grandeur, the sleaze, the loneliness and solitude, and the cruelty surrounding Edith Piaf. And when the camera is trained on Marion Cotillard, we can't help but be captivated by her essence and presence.
Then, of course, there is the music. I was only slightly familiar with Piaf's songs until now: La Vie en Rose, Padam, Padam, L'Hymne A L'Amour, Lisieux, etc. They are gorgeous, and make me appreciate Edith Piaf's talent, and recognize why she was such a star: the Judy Garland of France. At the end, when she starts to sing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, which perfectly captures her life and her spirit, it is a powerful scene and a definitive moment that summarizes la vie en Edith Piaf.
Stars: Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Paul Rouve, Gerard Depardieu, Clotilde Courau, Jean-Pierre Martins, Catherine Allegret, Marc Barbe
Director: Olivier Dahan
Writers: Olivier Dahan, Isabelle Sobelman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.3 out of 10