Biopic of the iconic French singer Édith Piaf. Raised by her grandmother in a brothel, she was discovered while singing on a street corner at the age of 19. Despite her success, Piaf's life was filled with tragedy.
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An un-chronological look at the life of the Little Sparrow, Édith Piaf (1915-1963). Her mother is an alcoholic street singer, her father a circus performer, her paternal grandmother a madam. During childhood she lives with each of them. At 20, she's a street singer discovered by a club owner who's soon murdered, coached by a musician who brings her to concert halls, and then quickly famous. Constant companions are alcohol and heartache. The tragedies of her love affair with Marcel Cerdan and the death of her only child belie the words of one of her signature songs, "Non, je ne regrette rien." The back and forth nature of the narrative suggests the patterns of memory and association. Written by
Edith Piaf's story brings to mind the tragedy of Judy Garland, in some ways her American counterpart a freakishly talented girl with severe emotional problems who was plucked from obscurity by perceptive and farsighted mentors and transformed into a great artist before self-destructing under the pressures and imbalances inherent in superstardom.
This film is the second attempt in the last 20-odd years to tell the story of the amazing Edith Piaf. The earlier attempt was a poorly received play by British playwright Pam Gems. From what I heard it was sketchy and without depth and didn't do very well on the boards either in the UK or the USA, but the lead actress was highly praised. Now we have another attempt, this time on film, which is also panned for being sketchy and without depth but worth seeing because of an outstanding lead performance, this time by Marion Cotillard.
I agree with most of the other commentators that the script by Olivier Dahan and Isobel Sobelman (if there even was a full script) and Dahan's direction are messy and confusing, as if the director wanted to emulate the Baz Luhrman touch by creating a 10-ring circus. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that Dahan scribbled ideas on index cards, threw them up in the air and then picked them up randomly, stacked them on a table and said, "Let's shoot the film in this order." The producers of this train wreck wisely hired very talented actors, costume designers, set builders and camera people. I think the French are world-class experts in these departments. Most French period films look right, down to the lighting.
The challenge of making a film biography of Piaf is that she was so extraordinary and she lived such an eventful life during historically volatile times. How to tell it all without succumbing to the episodic TV-movie style is something that should be handed over to only the most skilled screenwriter. Dahan is not that person, His direction of individual scenes isn't so bad. It's the context in which they are presented and the confusing script that weakens the film. It is hard to tell whether the editing jumped back and forth and sideways in order to conceal the essential weakness of the material or if the zigzagging was intended from the outset, perhaps to mirror the chaos of Piaf's lifestyle. But if so, WHY? Why make bad scrambled eggs when you could have made a great omelet?
Marion Cotillard fulfills all of the demands of this role, as dictated by this diffuse script. Nothing she does is lukewarm or halfhearted. But what she is required to do is suspect. Surely Piaf was no beauty toward the end, but she certainly didn't look like a mangled crone out of Fellini's SATYRICON.
But amidst this mess I was actually moved, especially during the buildup period when she is first seen singing on the streets to an appreciative audience of passersby or the way one of her mentors strictly coaches her to be the best she can be by improving her stage posture and enunciation or her rapturous reaction to a new song played for her by composers inspired by her artistry, as if she lives for such beauty. Those scenes were going in the right direction.
It is not even so bad that certain aspects of her life are reduced to brief telegraphic scenes such as the moment when she meets Marlene Dietrich, played very well and authentically by Caroline Sihol. Too bad there couldn't have been more of this relationship in the film. I'd have happily sacrificed about half of the footage devoted to her sappy involvement with the boxer for another scene or two with Dietrich whom she knew very well for several years.
The total absence of World War Two from the story is baffling. Surely her experiences performing for prisoners of war and her work in the Resistance and her devious methods of dealing with the Nazi occupiers would have brought out fascinating elements of her character and made for rousing and suspenseful scenes. Again, this omission speaks of a randomness at the conceptual level.
The religious element is played up from beginning to end. As a little girl she devoutly prays to St. Theresa. As a grown woman she treasures the cross that she wears around her neck. When she meets certain people, like Dietrich or her boxer lover, the expression of adoration on her face is the same as that of the little girl praying to her saint. It's all effective but presented as one of many fragments unconnected to the other fragments.
By the end you are more grateful that it's over than you are to have experienced this unique performer, and that's really sad.
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