The soul of the Sparrow

from New York Daily News (US) / by Marshall Fine

Marion Cotillard embodies Edith Piaf in ‘La Vie en Rose’

When Marion Cotillard strides into the room – tall, svelte, commanding – it seems impossible that this could be the same actress who is generating Oscar buzz for her performance as singer Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” opening Friday.

In the film, Cotillard seems to shrink into Piaf’s birdlike (the name “Piaf,” in fact, translates loosely as “sparrow”) 4-foot-8 frame. But in person, Cotillard appears to be at least 5-feet-8, someone who could just as easily be stepping onto a fashion runway to model designer creations. The transformation was a mental trick, Cotillard says mysteriously.

“Part of it was camera techniques, but part of it was that I really tried to believe I was tiny,” says the 31-year-old French actress. “By believing it so strongly, I thought it could work, because then your whole body is involved in that desire to be small. And the first time I saw the footage and I saw how tiny I looked, I was so happy. I told myself, ‘It worked.'”

“La Vie en Rose” is an impressionistic biography of Piaf, who, more than four decades after her death at age 47, remains the French equivalent of Judy Garland or perhaps Billie Holiday: a singer who channeled all the pain and tragedy of her life into passionate performances that, for a moment, made the rest of the world melt away. Except, if anything, Piaf led an even more melodramatic life.

Raised by her paternal grandmother, who ran a Normandy brothel, Piaf (born Edith Gassion) spent her teen years struggling as a Paris street singer – until she was discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplee, who christened her “La M%F4me Piaf” (Kid Sparrow). Nightclub gigs led to recording contracts and films and she became France’s most popular entertainer, as well as a hero of the French resistance during World War II. But a car accident in 1951 left her badly injured – which led to a longtime morphine addiction and continuing problems with alcoholism that dogged her career until her death from cancer in 1963. Her funeral in Paris famously stopped traffic.

As he wrote the script for the film of her life, director Olivier Dahan had only Cotillard in mind for the role, though he didn’t know her. But her work – in French films such as “A Very Long Engagement” – had caught his attention, in part, he says, because of Cotillard’s sad eyes.

“Piaf, when she was 20, had the same look and shape of the eyes,” Dahan says. “But the main attraction was that Marion is a tragedian, which is something quite rare. I knew I needed someone like that to bring the character alive.”

“That rings a bell,” Cotillard says, with a smile. “I do love to play tragedy.”

But first, Dahan had to battle to cast Cotillard. Though she had been acting for more than 10 years, she wasn’t the box-office magnet the film’s producers were hoping for: “I wasn’t attracting money for the film and it took a long time to finally get the role,” she says.

That may soon change. Cotillard already has the attention of Hollywood, having appeared in films by directors as diverse as Ridley Scott (“A Good Year”), Tim Burton (“Big Fish”) and Abel Ferrara (“Mary”). The kind of buzz that a performance like the one she gives in “La Vie en Rose” – in which she plays Piaf from her teenage years to her death – quickly could make her a sought-after talent. The fact that she’s a stunner who speaks charmingly accented English doesn’t hurt, either.

Dahan was adamant about using Piaf’s actual singing voice in the film. So, like Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” Cotillard mimes behind recorded performances, something that may be even more difficult than trying to duplicate Piaf’s distinctive voice.

“It’s the energy and the breathing – maybe you can’t see it but you can feel it,” Cotillard says. “Her voice gathered so many things: the street, the lights, the poor, the wealthy, the sadness, the drama. The strength she had, mixed with the fragile emotional person she was, creates something authentically unique.”


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