Unsurprisingly, yet entirely deserved, the actress Marion Cotillard, won the Oscar for Best Actress for her truly bravura performance, capturing Edith Piaf’s sad, tortuous, pained, joyous, complex life (the other Oscar won was for Best Make Up – I presume for when the creative talent had to age her dramatically, plus the colour of her skin from liver deterioration). A powerful film (2007) about one of the most important 20th century singers, it captures your heart, not only by the quality of the performances all-round of a troubled artist and her peers, but also by the quality of the script by Olivier Dahan (also the director), and Isabelle Sobelman. (Click here to buy the Region 1 DVD.)
It’s a no-holds-barred interpretation of Piaf’s life; it includes Piaf’s most important performances, and makes clear from the outset how her own unique talents led her from the gutters/street life of Paris — typically the way she earned enough just to keep her friend and her going in food, wine and rent – to become the most celebrated singer of France. Her first success due to Louis Leplee, a Parisian club-owner, played by Gerard Depardieu, fortunately not to be seen peeing anywhere or then later making a pathetic, self-excusing joke of it and himself (oops, sorry,went wobbling off-track there, but my eldest sister said if she was there when he did that, she would have knocked him out. Erm, you don’t want to mess with my sister — I certainly don’t; bless you, Cat, if you’re reading this — eek!), whose instinctive sense for real talent invites her to audition when he finds her singing on a street corner. Of course, an honest film about Piaf must include her painful self-destruction, and this the film doesn’t shirk from nor does it exploit it salaciously/tabloid-style; the portrayal of Piaf apparently lacking any real core self-worth (contrary to appearances, her fame and some of her grandiose Diva-like gestures), is painful to witness.
However, where she seemed consistently to be resilient, defiant, strong and always true to herself was on stage, singing; in that specific and hugely important regard, it is fair to regard her as a feminist icon; through everything she experienced, she never let go of her voice, its passion and her commitment to singing despite how she felt or what else was going on in her life. That in itself is remarkable and worthy of recognition as a powerful form of creative and determined self-recognition of value. Unfortunately, as with many truly talented individuals, as with anyone of us, frankly, one positive aspect of one’s life does not necessarily colour those other parts of ourselves that may be negative. After all, who among us can claim to be fully integrated and cohesive selves. Yet this characteristic failure (a decidedly human one) should not deter us from celebrating Piaf’s incredible attributes as a true artist with a genuinely unique voice (and how refreshing to use the much overused/abused noun/adjective ‘unique’ and know its application here is sincere; unlike endless products and companies and rubbish modern-day ‘celebrities’ who have nothing in common apart from not being unique at all but the opposite).
Beautifully filmed, poignant, touching with astonishing ‘renditions’ of Piaf’s singing, it is a modern classic about an incredible, enigmatic, troubled artist. It’s difficult to imagine a better film being made about Piaf’s life or a finer performance. Mind you, I thought that when I first saw Capote (2005), with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s amazing interpretation, only to be then bowled over by Toby Jones’ version in Infamous (2006), the latter film also including a broodingly delicious, intelligently menacing, conflicted Daniel Craig in what I regard as his best performance to date.