Non, rien de rien.
Non, je ne regrette rien.
Car ma vie, car mes joies
Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi !
‘The first time I heard Edith Piaf sing, I cried,” says 31-year-old Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, who plays the legendary French singer in a heartbreaking new biopic, La Vie en Rose. “I was so moved – and so impressed that in only three or four minutes she could tell a whole story that would make me cry.”
Piaf certainly had a handle on misery. During the 47 years of her short life, she lost almost everyone who mattered to her: her parents ran off to the circus when she was a baby, leaving her to grow up in her grandmother’s brothel; her only child died of meningitis; and the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, was killed in a plane crash only two years after they’d met.
Yet somehow, despite all this, she soared from the filthy Parisian streets of Belleville to the glitzy heights of stardom, touring the world with a clutch of show-stopping tunes delivered always in that miraculous, seismic voice: it shook her birdlike frame, held audiences spellbound, and transmuted the gloom that enshrouded her life into musical gold.
Cotillard, as Piaf, gives the most remarkable performance you’ll see on film this year.
Whether portraying the scruffy teenage ingénue – spotted singing on a street corner and ushered on to the stage of his nightclub by Louis Leplée (played by an avuncular Gérard Depardieu) – or the aging diva, crippled by arthritis and addicted to morphine, Cotillard’s extraordinary turn seduces the eye and assaults the heart.
Although Cotillard is a talented chanteuse, and already knew Piaf’s music back-to-front having long ago acquired the habit of listening to it in her trailer whenever preparing to act a particularly emotional scene, Piaf’s own recordings were used for the soundtrack.
Cotillard insists that she was undaunted by the prospect of taking on the mantle of a French national treasure, an iconic figure whose funeral, attended by 40,000 fans, brought central Paris to a standstill.
“I was inspired by a great uncle who used to live at home with us,” she says. “I still remember him perfectly, all the movements of the person he was just before he died: the way he walked, the way he behaved, and that horrible life you lead when you are ill inside. For the old Piaf, I took all of that.”
The result, a striking combination of physical frailty with emotional volatility, makes Cotillard’s Piaf a far from straightforwardly sympathetic character. The flip side of her contagious joie de vivre is a selfish capriciousness: she casts off lovers like dirty stockings and, as her fame grows, neglects her old friends, or humiliates them in front of her starrier new acquaintances.
“When I started reading about her life I discovered a bright side and a dark side,” says Cotillard. “Some aspects of that dark side I initially found very hard to accept – like the tyranny that she could use over people. But then I realised that her selfish behaviour was motivated by her desire to keep people around her. She was so scared to be alone. And once you understand that, you stop judging her.”
In preparing for the role, Cotillard read and heard many stories about Piaf – few figures in French popular culture have generated quite so much myth and rumour -but one source she grew to trust more than any other was the singer’s old friend, Ginou Richet, who offered her a surprising insight into Piaf’s character. “Ginou shared with me many things that she thought would help me to understand Piaf,” says Cotillard.
“But above all she described her as a happy person. Yes happy. Even though she lived such crazy tragedy, such huge tragedy, Piaf loved to have fun. She loved life.”
La Vie en Rose is the English-given title for the Academy Award-winning film La Môme, a 2007 French movie directed by Olivier Dahan about singer Édith Piaf, starring Marion Cotillard in her Academy Award, BAFTA, César Award, Czech Lion, and Golden Globe winning performance as Piaf.