on 1 Jan, 1970
from Adelaide Now (Australia) / by Kirsten Heysen
WHAT became a labour of love could earn an Oscar for the rising French star Marion Cotillard, who plays Edith Piaf in a new movie.
La Vie En Rose, directed by Olivier Dahan, follows legendary French singer Edith Piaf’s turbulent life from her childhood (she was born in 1915) to her death in 1963.
Cotillard is unquestionably brilliant in the role.
“Piaf worked all the days of her life, all the time,” Cotillard says.
“I know with work you can do many things. I love to work and I knew that I could do something with this role.”
The 31-year-old Paris-born actor was last seen opposite Russell Crowe in the Ridley Scott flop A Good Year in which she played a stunning waitress working in cafe in the south of France. Cotillard’s physical transformation for La Vie En Rose is astonishing.
Edith Piaf was born Edith Giovanna Gassion and given her stage name, meaning “sparrow”, by her first manager.
Cotillard is more than a foot taller than the tiny singer, but clever camera work and her attention to detail (she stoops, walks and gestures exactly like Piaf) make the role convincing.
Cotillard’s eyebrows were plucked out and painted back on and her hairline shaved to make it higher. Make-up and prosthetics were used to age the actor, who portrays three decades of Piaf’s life. “We found this crazy guy who believed it could work,” Cotillard says. “I called him Picasso.
“Before him, several make-up artists gave up, but I think in the end it worked. I can’t believe this, but I slept during the make-up sessions.
“I’m really sleeping and they are drawing on my skin and painting, you know all the veins and the red areas you have when you get older.
“It was a very artistic job.”
Yet the most difficult aspect of the role was lip-synching to classics like Piaf’s anthem Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No, I Regret Nothing).
Dahan was adamant that Piaf’s actual singing voice be used in the film, meaning Cotillard had to mime behind recorded performances.
“The lip-synching was the hardest thing,” she says.
“It was very technical and took me ages to get something which I wanted to be perfect. You just have to do it again and again and again.
“You have to learn how to breathe in another person’s body.”
Dahan, after seeing Cotillard in films such as the French World War I epic A Very Long Engagement, was sure she was the only one for the role.
It was, he says, her sad eyes, that convinced him.
“He didn’t have any doubt and I think that was contagious, and when I read the script I felt something huge,” she says.
“I was so surprised in a way of that offer of someone coming to me and saying, ‘you are going to tell her whole life, you’re going to live, you’re going to sing, you’re going to love, you’re going to die’.
“I was more than happy. It was better than my dreams.”
Piaf’s life was tragic. A sickly child rejected by her alcoholic mother, she spent her childhood on the road or the streets with her circus acrobat father or at a brothel owned by her grandmother.
She was discovered singing on the streets and in her adult life became a big star, both in Europe and America.
Those years of success were also plagued by alcohol and drug addiction and the death of her lover, French boxer Marcel Cerdan.
“I had no understanding at all of her life before I started preparation for the movie, so my aim was to discover everything, to understand her soul and her heart,” Cotillard says.
“At the end my vision of her changed entirely. The image I had of her before was that little woman with that black dress doing many motions with her hands and of course the power of her voice.
“But I really didn’t know anything more about her.”
The story is not told chronologically, but rather as a series of vignettes.
Moments from childhood are interspersed with scenes of Piaf’s adult life; her career triumphs and personal tragedies.
“It’s like an emotional way of remembering everything just before dying,” Cotillard says. “When you remember life you won’t think of birth and so on in the right order to the end.
“You think of one thing and that reminds you of something else.
“That’s how Olivier wanted to write and edit the movie.”
While there has been criticism of Dahan’s decision to leave out Piaf’s involvement with the resistance during World War II, Cotillard would have liked Piaf’s last romance to have been included.
“I really felt that her last lover, Theo Sarapo, was very in love with her and it was a beautiful relationship, so when I read the script I was a little bit sad about that,” she says.
“During the war, yes, she did amazing things, but you have to make choices.
“Olivier really wanted to have scenes where you can learn something about her and her generosity.
“You can see this on stage.
“She gave everything. When you know this about her, you don’t need other proof.”
Cotillard’s performance has already generated an Oscar buzz. The star – who is from an acting family (“we talk about our passion for it, never about technique”) – acknowledges the intense role gave her the kind of opportunity actors spend their lives wishing for.
“I felt a kind of sadness when it was all over,” she says.
“I shared my life with someone for months and with someone so strong.
“I really fell in love with her.”