Pretty Cotillard plays a not always pretty Piaf

from The Gazette (Montréal, Canada) / by Brendan Kelly

Boozing, drugs were part of singer’s life. Film La vie en rose follows her from cradle to grave

Meeting Marion Cotillard, the first thing that strikes you is how different she seems from Edith Piaf.

Cotillard, who plays the iconic French chanteuse in the bio-pic La vie en rose, which opened across Quebec Friday, is simply remarkable in the film, delivering an intense portrayal of this most intense of artists.

The 31-year-old Parisian actress transforms into Piaf, playing the singer from the age of 19 to her death at 47, and for much of that time span, Cotillard’s Piaf is not the prettiest sight. She’s often drunk and, in her late years, she’s frequently in a drug-induced stupor, her frail body visibly ravaged by all the hard living it has had to endure.

Cotillard looks nothing like the tortured, tragic figure at the heart of La vie en rose. If anything, this beautiful movie star looks a lot more like she did in the 2006 flick A Good Year, in which she played the attractive restaurant owner in Provence who catches the attention of the Russell Crowe character.

In a recent chat in a downtown hotel suite, Cotillard admitted that it was a daunting challenge to transform herself into Piaf – particularly given that she had to play the singer over nearly three decades of her adult life.

“For sure, that’s the first thing that jumped out at me when I read the screenplay,” said Cotillard, who previously starred in the hit French film series Taxi, Tim Burton’s Big Fish and Un long dimanche de fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement).

“I’ve never been afraid to push my limits as an actress. But I did fear playing a woman of that age – especially since she looked much older than she actually was.”

To prepare for the role, she tried to get her hands on as much information as she could about the Gallic songstress who wowed the world with classics like Non, je ne regrette rien and Milord.

“I didn’t know Edith Piaf at all when I got the role,” she said. “Of course, I knew a few songs. I knew she was always dressed in black when she was on stage. But that was about it. So I read all the biographies.

“The advantage when you’re playing a real person is there’s a lot of material available about the person, and I did a lot of research,” Cotillard said. “I saw the films in which she starred as an actress, I watched the footage of her performances. I watched everything I could.”

But she had no interest in doing a straight-out imitation of “the little sparrow,” as Piaf was known. “I wanted to try to understand who she really was, but I didn’t want to be exactly like her. I wanted to bring to life the character that (writer-director) Olivier Dahan had created in the screenplay.”

La vie en rose recounts Piaf’s entire life story, from her hard-scrabble youth on the streets of the working-class Paris district of Belleville, through her years as a kid living in a brothel in Normandy to her dramatic rise from bohemian Parisian pub-crawler to France’s most famous musical export. The film spends plenty of time on the seamier side of Piaf’s tumultuous personal life, including the boozing and the late-life drug addiction.

“She was a person of extremes,” Cotillard said. “She had an immense sense of joie de vivre, but at the same time she had so many calamities in her life.”

It’s tempting to compare La vie en rose to the Ray Charles bio-pic Ray and the Johnny Cash bio Walk the Line, given that all three are tragic tales of singers with no shortage of personal problems. But Cotillard isn’t comfortable with the comparison.

“The difference is that our film is a very intimate portrait of an artist,” she said. “The form of La vie en rose is also quite different. There are lots of flashbacks and it’s much more about the emotion rather than telling a straight story.”

Since its release in France four weeks ago, the film has sold more than 4 million tickets, and, along the way, turned on a new generation to a singer who died more than 40 years ago.

“We always thought that this was a film that wasn’t just for one generation,” Cotillard said. “She recorded songs that are eternal because they’re so authentic. They’re among the greatest love songs of all time.”

La vie en rose is in cinemas now, in the original French version and with English subtitles.


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