Review by © Jane Freebury
There were lovers and husbands, triumphs and catastrophes, illnesses and addictions, and highs and lows enough in the life of singer Edith Piaf to fill several lives by the time the French chanteuse died at the age of 47 in 1963. Her life was packed with improbabilities, a chaotic journey that destroyed her health yet even when she was ailing the show went on.
You would think Piaf’s tumultuous life would be daunting for any sensible filmmaker, and perhaps that’s why only a handful of biopics have been made. Getting Edith right is the other problem.
Piaf only stood a little over 1.4 metres in her stockinged feet, and there was an unusual pugnaciousness about her, arms akimbo, defiant and ready to take on the world. But camera positioning, prosthetics and wavy-haired wigs do wonders with Marion Cotillard in the role of Piaf, while dubbing gets around the problem of the voice.
Ultimately however it’s performance that counts and Cottilard, last seen in A Good Year with Russell Crowe, has thrown herself into this role with an abandon that would have made Piaf proud. Her performance is definitely the best thing about the movie.
With a flurry of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the film covers Piaf’s early years when she was passed around between her cabaret singer mother, her acrobat father, and the grandmother who ran a brothel. From when she is discovered busking by an impresario who runs a cabaret – an obligatory appearance by Gerard Depardieu, who had to be in there somewhere – her star begins to rise.
But too little about her celebrity years is acknowledged, when she became the darling of the French and eventually a star in America too. Nor is there any mention of her continuing to perform during the Nazi occupation, though she apparently helped the Resistance. A lot of interesting stuff goes unmentioned.
Despite the rich source material at hand, director and co-writer Olivier Dahan has elided much that was fascinating and complex about his subject. Her affairs and patronage of singers like Yves Montand, the influence she had on Charles Aznavour and others, and that she wrote many of her own songs.
It is regrettable the director chose to make his film in the random and distracting way he did. Watching Piaf aged and frail one minute and a grieving mother the next could have been okay but the structure of the film overall lacks internal logic.
Piaf’s life was like that anyway – grasping the moment, terrified of the abyss below – but it’s the figure of Piaf that stands tall here among the muddle.