Édith Piaf, the Little Sparrow, Takes Flight Again

from New York Times (US) / by Kristin Hohenadel

IT doesn’t take much to make Montmartre look like a movie set, with its narrow winding streets and bohemian village charm. On a stroll up the hilly Rue Lépic in the shadow of the Moulin de la Galette, an old windmill featured in paintings by van Gogh, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, it’s easy to conjure up a Paris littered with the usual props: a baguette under every arm, a beret angled jauntily atop every head, lip-locked lovers on every corner.

The soundtrack to accompany this picturesque fantasy has to be the inimitable voice of Édith Piaf, who as a poor girl sang for her supper on the streets of Paris — where she was discovered — and went on to become one of France’s most famous cultural ambassadors with unabashedly romantic love songs like “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

In a television call-in survey in France in 2005 to name “The Greatest French Person of All Time,” Piaf, who died of cancer in 1963 at 47, was ranked No. 10 out of 100 historical figures and modern-day celebrities. (The top honor went to Charles de Gaulle.) So when TF1 International announced plans to make the film “La Môme” (“The Little Sparrow,” Piaf’s nickname), it seemed the company was cashing in on a myth, trying to resell the image of France’s most legendary chanteuse to the world and to France itself.

But it seems the filmmakers have set out instead to humanize a legend. Written and directed by Olivier Dahan and starring Marion Cotillard, the film is set to be released in France next Valentine’s Day. (Renamed “La Vie en Rose,” after one of Piaf’s most famous songs, it is scheduled to be released in the United States by Picturehouse in 2007.)

“All female voices are descendants of Piaf,” said Alain Goldman, one of the film’s producers. But while Piaf still exists in living memory, the most popular modern French chanteuses look and sound more like Britney Spears rip-offs. Not a season of “La Nouvelle Star,” the French version of “American Idol,” goes by without an aspiring little sparrow tackling “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” or “La Vie en Rose,” and inevitably crashing to earth with broken wings.

It’s hard not to see this exercise in nostalgia as evidence of France’s current, self-professed identity crisis as a nation torn between its defining past and the vagaries of its future, unsure of its place in the world. Mr. Goldman said it wasn’t only tourists who sometimes pine for a France that is all but lost.

“I think that France has nostalgia for that era as well,” he said. “France doesn’t know exactly where it’s going, and in moments of doubt you tend to look back at where you came from. And our history is incarnated by people, by destinies. Édith Piaf is an essential name in French culture.”

But Mr. Dahan, 38, wants to make the case for Piaf as an eternal artist with international appeal, not simply celebrate her as a national symbol. “She toured the world,” he said. “Of course she’s French, and her culture is French at the base, but she doesn’t belong to France.”

He pointed out that the movie — which was also filmed in Prague and Los Angeles — begins in New York, with Piaf singing in English. “An artist doesn’t belong to a country,” he said.

Mr. Dahan said he was not a fan when he stumbled on little-known photographs of Piaf as a girl. Intrigued, he read everything he could find about her and was surprised to discover that while her music and concert DVD’s are still being produced, nobody had ever made a movie about her life.

“I didn’t know much about her — a bit, like all French people, but not in detail,” said Mr. Dahan, who was born near Marseille. “I knew certain songs that everyone knows, because they play them on the radio. But the more I got into the details of her life, the more fascinating she became.”

He rejected the idea that this was only the story of a legend. “I wanted it to be accurate but not be paralyzed by the mythical quality, or dramatic reconstruction,” he said. “For me she was the prototype of an artist. I’m trying to show the intimate side of the person, not just the person singing on stage — how much she mixed her art and her life.”

The first half hour of the movie focuses on Piaf’s childhood from age 8 to 10, when, abandoned by her mother, she lived in a brothel run by her paternal grandmother, went temporarily blind and began to sing on the streets of Paris. “What the French know most is Piaf, when she was a bit older, when she sang at the Olympia,” Mr. Dahan said, referring to the famed music hall. “I think even the French are going to discover a lot about her.”

Because it is Piaf’s music, not her life, that is legend, the filmmakers sought to fill in the blanks of her tumultuous adulthood, in which she was accused of murder, endured the death of her only child, married twice and became involved with the French Resistance. Ms. Cotillard’s elfin beauty was transformed one afternoon during filming when she appeared with fake, bushy (pre-fame) Piaf eyebrows and her hairline shaved to make room for a wig styled in a curly bob with bangs. Ms. Cotillard, 30, said Piaf’s eventful life was a worthy subject for a movie, great singer or not. “You don’t need to love or not love, to know or not know Piaf, to go see the story of the extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman.”

Mr. Goldman said the film was difficult to finance, given its budget of $25 million — a high figure for a French film — and Mr. Dahan’s insistence on casting Ms. Cotillard, who is not as internationally recognizable an actress as Juliette Binoche or Audrey Tautou. (Ms. Cotillard will lip-sync Piaf’s songs.) The movie also stars Gérard Depardieu as Louis Leplée, the cabaret owner who discovered her.

The art department had lightly edited a patch of Rue Lépic to remove its 21st century detritus, lighted fires to give the effect of early morning fog, and stopped traffic for a handful of early 20th-century automobiles.

It was the kind of scene — actors out of earshot, walking up a hill in take after take — that glues together a movie, but is little fun for passers-by to watch. “Are there any stars in this?” an American woman carrying an “I {sheart}Paris” tote bag asked loudly while snapping digital photos like a crime reporter.

But despite the picture-postcard Montmartre setting, Mr. Goldman said the project has popular potential both at home and abroad. “Popular in the good sense of the term,” he said, “meaning a whole population can see themselves in the story of one of their heroines. Édith Piaf had a very large public: young, old, bourgeois, poor. Everyone was touched by her music. Also we had the potential to make an international film, not only a French one.”

Mr. Goldman, who grew up near where the street scene was being filmed, said that making an international film involved “holding the keys to world culture, and it’s mostly the United States that knows how to do that.” He continued: “I adored ‘Spider-Man.’ We don’t have that, so the only way for us to be international, to be universal, is to talk about Montmartre. Because the whole world knows Montmartre.”


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