I have to admit the only things I knew about Edith Piaf before watching this stunning film was that she was French and that she sang La Vie en rose and Non, je ne regrette rien. I also admit I’m a bit late to the table with discovering this film as it came out in 2007. Nevertheless, when I came across it I was really excited about seeing it.
Set between her birth in 1915 and her death in 1963, this film about the life of Edith Piaf meanders back and forth through her memories creating a story filled with sadness and heartbreak. Born to a circus performer father and an alcoholic street singer mother she was passed from pillar to post, and even spent time living with her paternal grandmother, a madam of a seedy backstreet brothel. As a child she was sickly and suffered from bouts of keratitis, leaving her practically blind for several years. Eventually her father took her to live with him and the two of them earned money performing on the streets where Edith, at the age of 14, sang in public for the first time.
Finally leaving her father behind, she moved in with the woman who was to become a life long friend, Simone “Mômone” Berteaut. The two performed as singers on street corners earning enough money for their own flat. Yet, everything turned sour when Edith moved her boyfriend, Louis Dupont, in with them and Mômone and Louis took an instant disliking to one another.
Eventually Edith was discovered by Le Gerny nightclub owner, Louis Leplée, and encouraged to sing in front of his mixed class clientele, despite her extreme nervousness. He gave her the nickname La Môme Piaf, a Paris slang phrase meaning “The Waif Sparrow” or “The Little Sparrow” which then became her stage name.
But her life as Paris’, and later France’s, biggest star was still blighted by pain and sorrow with the death of Leplée, her increasingly crimpling arthritis and loss of many other close to her she turned to alcohol and prescription drugs for comfort. Of course, with her complete dependence on both, her liver began to fail and in 1963 she died having drifted in and out of consciousness for months.
The film itself, in French with English subtitles, is incredibly stylish with the cinematography grimy and grey during times of hardship and suffering and bright and colourful at times of joy and excitement. Directed by Olivier Dahan, who recently directed Nicole Kidman in Grace of Monaco, has a way of telling a story that grabs you by the heart strings and demands that you respond. Marion Cotillard plays Edith Piaf with such beauty and grace that you actually forget it’s an actress playing her. There’s no doubting why she received the Academy Award for Best Actress along with a César, a BAFTA Award, and a Golden Globe for her role.
Having now watched the film, and learnt so much about Edith Piaf, the words of her songs and the tone of her voice have so much more meaning behind them. This was a woman who suffered more than most and still got up on stage and sang Non, je ne regrette rien. Perhaps we could all learn a thing or two from her incredible spirit.