Cast: Marion Cotillard, Gerard Depardieu, Sylvie Testud
Oscar Wins: Best Actress (Marion Cotillard), Best Makeup (Didier Lavergne, Jan Archibald)
Oscar Nominations: Best Costume Design (Marit Allen)
SUMMARY: Note: this movie is presented in a non-linear fashion, but for the purposes of this summary, I will present it in a linear manner.
In 1918, Edith Gassion is a small child crying in the street as her mother sings for change. After being chastised by a stranger for neglecting Edith, her mother writes to Edith’s father, who is fighting in World War I, and tells him that she cannot take care of Edith any longer, and has left her with her mother (Edith’s grandmother). On his next leave, Edith’s father comes home to find Edith dirty, sick and undernourished, so he takes her to his own mother, who runs a brothel. Surprisingly, Edith is happy and well-cared for in the brothel, becoming a favorite of many of the women. One of them, named Titine, takes a particular shine to Edith, and virtually adopts her. When Edith is three, she develops keratitis, which causes her to be virtually blind for several years; Titine organizes a trip to the grave of St. Therese, where she and several coworkers pray for Edith’s recovery. When she is seven, Edith finally overcomes the illness, and regains her sight. A few years later, Edith’s father suddenly comes back for her, much to the distress of both Titine and Edith. Edith’s father is an acrobat with the circus, and Edith joins this life as well (though she does not perform). One evening, Edith sees St. Therese appear in a fire-breather’s flames, and hears St. Therese’s voice telling her she will never be alone. When Edith is nine, her father decides to leave the circus and work for himself. He begins performing his act on street corners while Edith collects donations, but one day, the crowd demands that Edith take part in the act. Edith’s father tells her to do anything, so after some hesitation Edith sings “La Marseillaise”. The crowd (and Edith’s father) is stunned by the young girl’s voice, and give generously to the family. By the time Edith (now played by Marion Cotillard) is in her mid-teens, she has left her father and is living on the streets of Montmartre, spending her days singing on the street for money. She is accompanied by her friend Momone (Sylvie Testud), who also joins Edith in spending the money at the closest bar (Edith is already on her way to becoming an alcoholic, like both of her parents). One day, Edith is approached by a nightclub owner named Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who offers her an audition for his club. The audition astounds everyone who hears it, and Leplee hires her and gives her the stage name “La Mome Piaf”, or “the Little/Kid Sparrow” (Piaf was only 4’10”). Edith is a huge hit at the club, but after only a few months, Leplee is murdered. Edith tries to stage her own show at a cabaret, but is mocked and shouted down by the crowd. By this time, Edith and Momone have a small apartment together, but one evening shortly after the cabaret disaster, the police show up and take Momone away, telling the girls that Momone’s mother has committed her daughter to a juvenile detention center.
Without any other options, Edith goes to songwriter/accompanist Raymond Asso for help, taking him up on an offer he had made some time earlier. Asso promises to turn Edith into a real singer, so that nobody will ever call her “the Kid” again. He begins giving her voice and performance lessons, demanding that she improve her diction and use her hands to give emotion to her performances. He succeeds in getting her a concert at a music hall (much more respected than clubs or cabarets), but Edith gets so much stage fright that she barely makes it out of her room. However, she proves to be a smash hit, and soon conquers America as well. In New York City for a concert, Edith is asked out by Marcel Cerdan, a French middleweight boxer. Cerdan openly admits to being married, but this doesn’t stop him from having an affair with Edith. Very quickly, the pair fall for each other, and although they try to keep things quiet, Cerdan notices that each time he enters a room, Edith’s song “La Vie en Rose” is played. Ultimately, Edith comes to the realization that Cerdan will never leave his wife and children, because he loves them, but is willing to continue the relationship as is. On one occasion when Cerdan is in Paris and Edith is in New York, she calls and asks him to fly over, because she misses him so much. The next morning, he wakes her up, and she joyfully makes coffee for him, then runs to get a present she bought him. As she runs through the apartment, she notices that her various entourage members are quiet and crying: when she demands to know why, she is told that Cerdan’s plane crashed, and he was killed. Edith tears through the apartment, looking for Cerdan, but he is not there (the earlier vision apparently being a ghost). After this, Edith’s physical and mental health begin to decline. She develops arthritis, which causes her great pain, and is eventually in a series of car accidents. Both of these ailments cause her to take morphine, which she becomes addicted to, in addition to her copious alcohol consumption. She gets married briefly, but soon divorces. Around 1960, Edith is supposed to perform at the Olympia theater in Paris, but her entourage believes she will not be able to do it, given her condition: Edith is stooped and shuffling, and can’t stand up well on her own. After an argument, Edith agrees to cancel, but only minutes later is played a new song called “Non, Je ne regrette rien” (No Regrets, which became one of her signature pieces). Edith is thrilled at the words, feeling like they perfectly capture her life, and declares that the concert at the Olympia is back on. This proves to be her last performance, as Edith ultimately collapses on stage. In 1963, on the last night of her life (at age 47), Edith weighs only about 66 pounds, and is carried to bed by a longtime associate. She realizes that she is about to die, and decides that she needs to tell her nurse about her daughter, Marcelle. When Edith was a teenager, and struggling to make a living singing wherever she could, she had a daughter with a boyfriend. The boyfriend took custody of the daughter, but Edith had visits twice a month, though she often took Marcelle on the street with her, against the ex-boyfriend’s wishes. When Marcelle was two, she developed meningitis, and died before Edith could say goodbye. As Edith lays in bed, the film flashes back to her performance of “Non, Je ne regrette rien” at the Olympia.
MY TAKE: I found this movie really hard to follow for quite a while, because it jumps around so much. Particularly in the scenes that show Edith in her later life, it became really hard to keep things straight and put them in chronological order in my head, even though dates were provided. These later-life flashbacks were often really quick, which is part of the reason the dates didn’t stick. Basically, I have decided that Edith Piaf was the French version of Judy Garland: very dysfunctional childhood, a great gift and a rise to stardom (though Edith’s happened later in life than Judy’s), early-onset addiction, numerous health problems that triggered periods of absence from the stage, followed by comebacks, and finally, premature death brought on by substance abuse (and possibly cancer, in Piaf’s case). Oddly, both were also really short and used stage names. In both cases, it’s a really tragic story, because they both got the shit end of the stick in life. Piaf was basically neglected until around age 2, when she was taken in by prostitutes. Admittedly, they took good care of her, but your world view is probably a little skewed after spending your formative years in a brothel (Piaf would credit this as the reason for her various lovers over the years, saying that where she grew up, women never said no to a man who wanted them). Then, when she has a fairly stable life, her idiot father takes her away for a life in the circus, for pete’s sake. I think we’re all pretty aware that this is also a less-than-ideal place for a kid to grow up. When that doesn’t work out, she and her father take to the streets. Surprisingly, nobody really seems to know that Edith can sing until about the age of 10, when she knocks everybody dead with her voice. But nothing comes of this, and Edith quickly turns into a homeless alcoholic. It is only by chance that she runs into Leplee, who in turn introduces her to Asso, who ultimately provides a way out of the gutter. We don’t know it until the end of the movie, but during this time, Edith gives birth to and then loses a daughter. Things seem to stabilize for quite a few years, although she’s probably drinking and doing some kind of drugs for pain at the time, until Cerdan dies. This seems to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as the already unstable Piaf goes completely off the deep end. By the time she dies, at age 47, she looks like she’s at least 80 (a sick 80, too). It’s really sad, because she should have still been able to really work that voice. Instead, she hasn’t done a concert in three years, after collapsing on stage during the Olympia one in 1960. Marion Cotillard is incredible as Piaf, and definitely deserved her Oscar. She did a lot of study into Piaf’s mannerisms, including her walk and speech pattern. On top of that, she just bears a striking resemblance to the woman, at least when she has some makeup and the hairdo on. What amazed me (surprisingly) is that Cotillard lip-synched the songs. I would have been amazed if Cotillard had done her own vocals, because that is a very unique voice. However, I oddly found myself even more impressed when I learned that she didn’t do the singing. I realize that nearly everybody lip-synchs for the actual filming (except in Les Mis, I think), but if you’ve recorded the song yourself, you look pretty natural lip-synching it, because you know what you did. In order to believably pull off the singing scenes, Cotillard would have had to know every detail of somebody else’s performance (which would have taken a lot of time and study), and would have to time things perfectly, in addition to looking like she was actually singing (like not taking breaths in the middle of a long note, etc). Obviously, I was convinced, as midway through the film I Googled whether Cotillard did her own vocals. Pretty impressive stuff.
Fun fact: This was the first time the Best Actress Oscar went for a French-language performance. Ironically, Marlee Matlin won for a role in which she said nothing before a French-speaking role won.
RATING: Impressive but kinda hard to follow.