Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. France/United Kingdom/Czech Republic, 2007. Légende Films, TF1 International, TF1 Films Production, Okko Productions, Songbird Pictures, Canal+, TPS Star, Scotts Atlantic, Sofica Valor 7. Screenplay by Isabelle Sobelman, Olivier Dahan. Cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata. Produced by Alain Goldman. Music by Christopher Gunning. Production Design by Olivier Raoux. Costume Design by Marit Allen. Film Editing by Richard Marizy. Academy Awards 2007. Golden Globe Awards 2007.
If love is a battlefield, life was nothing but war for Edith Piaf, and singing was her weapon of choice. This riveting biopic by Olivier Dahan covers the majority of Piaf’s life and career, from her difficult childhood being raised in a brothel by her grandmother, through to her being discovered by a small-time club manager who loved the way she sang on street corners, then on to the big time at the top of the entertainment industry. This shy, awkward young woman with the big, sad eyes, buck teeth, poor posture and booming, richly beautiful voice went from grunge to plush velvet very early, conquering the world with her irresistible charisma but never able to leave her tragedies behind. Disappointments in love, terrible personal losses and a penchant to deal with it by reaching for the nearest bottle eventually caught up with her and she died prematurely before reaching 50. What she left behind, however, was a rich musical legacy that Dahan makes sure to mine with vigour as he plays song after song on the soundtrack, with star Marion Cotillard triumphing in the role, lip-synching to perfection during the performance scenes. It is by now far too common an experience to praise actors for doing spot-on imitations of famous people in film biographies, but Cotillard truly is something marvelous to behold. While she is impressive for the bigger gestures of the role (the obviously difficult makeup job, the way she recreates Piaf’s speaking voice and gestures), she is equally mesmerizing for the little moments: just watch her face as Marlene Dietrich pays her a genuinely beautiful compliment in a New York City nightclub, it’s one of the most tender moments captured on film. Dahan’s film is so good because it never focuses on tragedy the way biographers of Piaf often do, instead letting the sadder aspects of her life speak for themselves and putting all the complicated emotions into her spotlight; watching her up there on the stage, glowing with light and surrounded by admirers, one thinks that she is simultaneously the ruler of the entire universe and the saddest, loneliest woman in the world. It’s a shame that no one thought at the time to put her and Judy Garland on a worldwide Burnout Tour and have audiences pay to see which one of them would topple first. Either way, the film is an absolute knockout.