Marion Cotillard's full-out, go-for-broke performance as fabled French singer Edith Piaf is the white-hot center of writer-director Olivier Dahan's biopic, which chronicles her life from impoverished post-WWI childhood to her death in 1963, internationally famous but ravaged by years of illness, drug abuse and constant work.
The film opens in 1959, as a frail Piaf collapses while performing at a swanky New York City venue, then flashes back to 1918, where a ragged, 3-year-old Edith Gassion (Manon Chevallier) cries on a filthy stoop as her mother, Anetta (Clotilde Courau), sings on the streets of Paris' poor Belleville district. Anetta eventually sends her sickly child to live with her neglectful mother in country poverty, from which she's rescued by her father, Louis (Jean-Paul Rouve), a circus contortionist. He promptly leaves the child with his own mother, Louise (Catherine Allegret, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother, actress Simone Signoret), a Normandy brothel-keeper. Edith is raised by Grandma Louise and her girls, especially the pious, high-strung, motherly Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner, playing the film's only entirely fictitious character); Titine introduces Edith to St. Theresa and Baby Jesus, to whom Edith prays throughout the rest of her life.
The film glides back and forth between past and present, following the older Edith (Pauline Burlet) as she's reclaimed by her volatile father and discovers that she can make money by singing, and then the adult Edith (Marion Cotillard), a scrawny spitfire with an oversized voice who can hold her own in a bar full of pimps, thugs and lowlifes. Discovered on a street corner by cabaret impresario Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who renames her "Piaf" (French slang for a sparrow), she gets a taste of success that's snatched away when he's murdered and she's suspected of being involved. With the emotional support of longtime friend Momone (Sylvie Testud), song writer Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe) — who coaches her relentlessly until she finds her vulnerable, passionate stage presence — and manager Louis Barrier (Pascal Greggory) — whose love for her was unreciprocated — she crawls back up from the bottom. Piaf's 10-year affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) is the happiest period of her life, even though she knows he'll never leave his family; Cerdan's death in a plane crash — he was coming to New York to see her, at her request — triggered the spiral into intense drug and alcohol abuse that left Piaf weak and prematurely aged. When she died at age 47, she looked at least 20 years older.
Dahan and cowriter Isabelle Sobelman's fluid screenplay, production design and supporting performances are all top-notch, but they pale next to Cotillard's riveting performance, which captures Piaf's harsh speaking voice, distinctive gestures and defiantly wounded body language without ever descending into mere impersonation. It's sometimes wrenching to watch, but it's too gripping to turn away from. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh