on 1 Jan, 1970
from The Telegraph (UK) / by Benjamin Secher
Actress Marion Cotillard talks to Benjamin Secher about her performance of a lifetime as legendary French singer Edith Piaf
‘The first time I heard Edith Piaf sing, I cried,” says 31-year-old Marion Cotillard, who plays the legendary French singer in a heartbreaking new biopic, La Vie en rose. “I was so moved – and so impressed that in only three or four minutes she could tell a whole story that would make me cry.”
Piaf certainly had a handle on misery. During the 47 years of her short life, she lost almost everyone who mattered to her: her parents ran off to the circus when she was a baby, leaving her to grow up in her grandmother’s brothel; her only child died of meningitis; and the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, was killed in a plane crash only two years after they’d met.
Yet somehow, despite all this, she soared from the filthy Parisian streets of Belleville to the glitzy heights of stardom, touring the world with a clutch of show-stopping tunes delivered always in that miraculous, seismic voice: it shook her birdlike frame, held audiences spellbound, and transmuted the gloom that enshrouded her life into musical gold.
In trying to shoehorn the full turbulent Piaf story into a single film, director Olivier Dahan was always going to have his work cut out. But if his beautiful, big-hearted epic occasionally strains at the seams, it is more than redeemed by its main attraction. Simply put, Cotillard, as Piaf, gives the most remarkable performance you’ll see on film this year.
Whether portraying the scruffy teenage ingénue – spotted singing on a street corner and ushered on to the stage of his nightclub by Louis Leplée (played by an avuncular Gérard Depardieu) – or the ageing diva, crippled by arthritis and addicted to morphine, Cotillard’s extraordinary turn seduces the eye and assaults the heart.
In the flesh, the Parisian actress is gentle, softly spoken, telling funny self-deprecating stories in her slow, careful English. But on screen, she is a titan: boisterous, bruising, flamboyant, and so utterly steeped in the spirit of Piaf that it’s hard to imagine any other actress filling the part.
“Ah, but I was not the one the financiers wanted to see in this role,” she confides in her smokey whisper, a smile flickering across her face. “And it’s not very hard to guess who they would have preferred. Frankly, if I’d had to cast someone to play Piaf, I would also have chosen [Amélie and Da Vinci Code star] Audrey Tautou instead of me: she’s far more bankable.
“But in the end Olivier [Dahan] was sure he wanted to make the film with me,” she adds. “So the financiers went away, leaving us with less money, less time to shoot, but the chance to make the movie we wanted.”
Cotillard is already something of a star in her own country, thanks to an award-winning supporting role in A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2004 follow-up to Amélie, and regular appearances in Luc Besson’s blockbusting Taxi franchise. On this side of the Channel, her face is less familiar – you may have spotted her fleetingly in Tim Burton’s Big Fish or opposite Russell Crowe in A Good Year – but with La Vie en rose she seizes a place in the acting top rank. Whispers of an Oscar nomination are already in the air.
She saw the star-making potential of the role the moment she read the script. “I was prepared to fight for this part,” she says. “I was ready to do almost anything.”
One thing she didn’t have to do was sing. Although Cotillard is a talented chanteuse, and already knew Piaf’s music back-to-front having long ago acquired the habit of listening to it in her trailer whenever preparing to act a particularly emotional scene, Dahan was committed to using Piaf’s own recordings for the soundtrack.
“Her voice was unique,” says Cotillard, who convincingly lip-synchs her way through the film’s big numbers. “So it was obvious that for me to try to learn that voice in the three months we had would have been crazy, impossible.”
“Actually,” she adds with a mischievous cackle, “I do get to sing one song in the film. But it comes in a scene where Piaf is drunk and sings like hell – which I guess is why they kept my voice for that one.”
Cotillard insists that she was undaunted by the prospect of taking on the mantle of a French national treasure, an iconic figure whose funeral, attended by 40,000 fans, brought central Paris to a standstill.
“Actually I was far more afraid of playing an old lady,” she says. “I know what it feels like to be a 30-year-old woman who has achieved things as a performer. But I have no idea what it is to be old – to be 47 but look 77 and be about to die. All I knew was that I had to be very precise in my performance, especially for the death-bed scene. That sort of thing is so fragile, if you get it just slightly wrong you end up looking ridiculous.”
For the physical transformation, Cotillard was given plenty of help from the special-effects team – by the end of the film, her beauty is all but concealed beneath a thick cake of pallid make-up that took six hours to apply – but for the singer’s emotional development, she drew on a painful memory from her own childhood.
“I was inspired by a great uncle who used to live at home with us,” she says. “I still remember him perfectly, all the movements of the person he was just before he died: the way he walked, the way he behaved, and that horrible life you lead when you are ill inside. For the old Piaf, I took all of that.”
To capture Piaf’s peculiar blend of infirmity and silliness, Cotillard also took on the mannerisms of a four-year-old girl she knows. The result, a striking combination of physical frailty with emotional volatility, makes Cotillard’s Piaf a far from straightforwardly sympathetic character. The flip side of her contagious joie de vivre is a selfish capriciousness: she casts off lovers like dirty stockings and, as her fame grows, neglects her old friends, or humiliates them in front of her starrier new acquaintances.
“When I started reading about her life I discovered a bright side and a dark side,” says Cotillard. “Some aspects of that dark side I initially found very hard to accept – like the tyranny that she could use over people. But then I realised that her selfish behaviour was motivated by her desire to keep people around her. She was so scared to be alone. And once you understand that, you stop judging her.”
In preparing for the role, Cotillard read and heard many stories about Piaf – few figures in French popular culture have generated quite so much myth and rumour -but one source she grew to trust more than any other was the singer’s old friend, Ginou Richet, who offered her a surprising insight into Piaf’s character. “Ginou shared with me many things that she thought would help me to understand Piaf,” says Cotillard.
“But above all she described her as a happy person. Yes happy. Even though she lived such crazy tragedy, such huge tragedy, Piaf loved to have fun. She loved life.”
• La Vie en rose (12A) is released on June 22