The extraordinary life of Edith Piaf
Director: Olivier Dahan
Screenwriter: Olivier Dahan, Isabelle Sobelman
Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Gregory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Paul Rouve, Gérard Depardieu, Clotilde Courau, Jean-Pierre Martins, Catherine Allegret, Marc Barbe
Filming Dates: unknown
Theatrical Release: France: February 14, 2007 / US: June 8, 2007 / UK: June 22, 2007
DVD Release: France: TBA / US: November 13, 2007 / UK: November 26, 2007
Genre: Drama, Biography, Music
Runtime: unknown minutes
MPAA Rating: France: unknown / US: unknown / UK: unknown
From the slums of Paris to the limelight of New York, Edith Piaf’s life was a battle to sing and survive, live and love. Raised in poverty, Edith’s magical voice and her passionate romances and friendships with the greatest names of the period – Yves Montand, Jean Cocteau, Charles Aznavour, Marlene Dietrich, Marcel Cerdan and others – made her a star all around the world. But in her audacious attempt to tame her tragic destiny, the Little Sparrow – her nickname – flew so high she could not fail to burn her wings.
She plays the title character, iconic French singer Edith Piaf, from the age 17-47 (when she actually looked like 70). It is an amazing performance. She’s equally brilliant as sprited teenager singing in the streets of Paris for her survival as well as an old woman on her deathbed. She brings Edith Piaf to life in every single scene and makes us love this eccentric singer despite her flaws. We feel the joy of life she had despite the many (!) tragic events in her life.
- News Updates
• Filming Locations: Prague (Czech Republic), Los Angeles (USA), France
• To portray Edith Piaf, Marion Cotillard shaved back her hairline and shaved off her eyebrows, which were later penciled in, to better resemble the singer.
• Make-up could take up to five hours for Marion Cotillard when she played the older Edith Piaf.
Quotes from Marion
In my early 20s, I really got into a number of singers of “la chanson réaliste” movement and I listened to a lot of Fréhel, Yvette Guilbert, Aristide Bruant and, of course, Edith Piaf. More than the others, her songs moved me because she sang of pure, true, absolute emotions with a voice that got you in the guts. At the time, I knew almost nothing about her, but I already knew by heart some songs like Les amants d’un jour, L’hymne à l’amour and La foule. On several occasions since then, I’ve listened to her songs just before a scene in order to reach a vulnerable, emotional state. Piaf helped me as an actress long before I got the chance to play her.
Olivier had built an intimate, balanced, very human portrait of Piaf. His screenplay was full of powerful moments, life-changing encounters, breakups, desertions, hope and love. A regular movie only ever has one scene that reaches that pitch. This one is full of them. It was an extraordinary role but I soon realized how demanding it would be to play Piaf from her early days to her death. I had never been given a role like that before. Nobody had ever asked me to play a woman like that, a life like that. It was all very new to me. I was nervous but I never felt a glimmer of doubt. That’s probably down to not ever feeling any doubt in Olivier’s mind. He had faith in me and that’s all I needed. The other thing that stopped me totally panicking was that, although I imagined it would be difficult, but I never imagined just how difficult!
In October 2005, right after I finished shooting Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, I got down to work every day. I would open the script, read these amazing scenes and close it immediately, hardly daring to think what was awaiting me. A little voice told me to open the script back up and read some more because one day soon I would be playing that scene. So I’d read some more of the script, with my heart pounding. Many times, I’ve been so apprehensive I feel like calling up a director to tell him to find another actress. But on this film, even when I was a nervous wreck, never, not once!
I had so much admiration for Piaf that some aspects of her were incomprehensible to me, especially the tyrannical aspect. Pascal [Luneau, coach] helped me realize that my admiration prevented me getting to the bottom of her. Losing that admiration didn’t mean not liking her anymore, but reaching another level. I stopped making myself so small in comparison to her and that’s when I got a handle on everything I didn’t like in her personality. Eventually, I came to really love her because I realized that the only thing she couldn’t bear was to be alone. She would go to any lengths not to be alone, even if it meant tyrannizing the people she loved.
We never worked on the physical aspects of the character — the way she walked, move, spoke — and then, the first day on set, I heard “Action!” and this voice I had never heard before came out of my mouth. In fact, my preparation had focused totally on observing and immersing myself in Edith Piaf. I watched so many tapes and listened to so many interviews that they ended up feeding a kind of inner process. From the start, I knew I didn’t want just to imitate her. My aim was to make enough room within me for Piaf to feel at home, without me disappearing completely. I had to welcome her in so that we could get on and create something together.
Part of being an actor is inviting characters in or summoning them up to share with you what you are. Of course, when you play someone as powerful and present as Piaf, it’s even more overwhelming. Some people may find all that a bit mystical, but all I can say is that after spending so long watching, listening to and loving her, I often had the impression that she was there. I was so deeply steeped in the way she moved and spoke, down to the tiniest inflections of her voice, that it was as if she existed within me. I arrived on set to meet up with her again! I’m not putting any mystical or esoteric spin on all this, it was just an encounter, an extraordinary encounter. Something of her recreated itself in me. It lasted only as long as we were shooting. At certain moments, you felt her presence. I often felt like we were working together. And then, you leave your ego to one side and just go for it. It’s frightening but absolutely thrilling.
On set, Olivier uses few words but they are all spot-on. He directs visually, by describing things. That may seem mechanical, but it’s totally intuitive for him and it worked perfectly for me. He offered us some magical moments, like the sequence shot when Piaf finds out that Cerdan is dead. I knew the dimensions of the set by heart — a long hallway that I had to prowl up and down. We had all rehearsed the scene. Everybody had to be in exactly the right place. There was a real buzz of excitement — exceptional, positive energy. We couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong because it would mean having to start all over again. When I woke up that morning, I thought of Roberto, the steadicam operator, and Chris, the focus puller, and I said to myself that we were going to waltz together. When the scene was in the can, we all had the most wonderful feeling.
I like to sing, but the technical process of miming to a tape was the hardest thing for me, simply because I wanted it to be perfect. I worked with a singing teacher to learn how Piaf sang — her body and tongue movements, and breathing. It was so complicated it nearly drove me insane. If I had tapes of her singing a particular song, I analyzed her performance. I noticed that being in rhythm isn’t enough when you’re miming. Your breathing is vital. I would jot down the exact moment when she took a breath, then I’d put the music on and film myself singing to camera. I spent whole nights taking notes on what not to do! I wanted it to be Piaf.
I’ll never approach a part in the same way again. Piaf taught me so much. In terms of my work, I think I’ll enjoy it even more than before because now I know that characters truly exist in their own right. I’ll have a way to bring them even more intensely to life.
Quotes from Others
I didn’t know her personally, but I immediately thought of Marion Cotillard to play Piaf. I saw her in several movies that showed she had the dramatic talent that was vital for the role and that few actresses possess. Piaf is an icon. Her face, voice and silhouette are instantly recognizable. For audiences to accept what I was trying to say, there had to be a likeness between the actress and Piaf. Marion is prettier but there is a definite resemblance when you look at early photos of Piaf. I sent her the script and then we met. We didn’t have much time, so we didn’t really do any tests, just a half-day for make-up. However, I asked Marion to research the part in the same way I had, by reading books and watching old footage. I think that she approached the character intuitively, like me, and that was the best way to do it.
I had told Marion that, however much make-up she was wearing, it was her I wanted to see. I didn’t want imitation. It was imperative that Marion should not be overwhelmed. I wanted her and Piaf to join.
It was the first time I had such a strong relationship with an actress. We shared the same perception of Piaf. We fed off each other. It’s Marion’s voice we hear singing on certain occasions but most of the time she mimed. Miming to Piaf is complex. It’s not just about cranking up the music and singing away. Marion practiced hard to get the breathing and rhythm right. She succeeded in embodying the character while capturing her soul. She makes her come alive.
As a matter of fact, Marion plays a lot of scenes like a silent movie actress.
• Olivier Dahan (Director)
Olivier immediately sensed that Marion bore a marked resemblance to Piaf in the years when it was impossible to hide your true self. Marion did an amazing job. Not only did she get into the mind of the character, she also got into her skin. By some strange miracle, she began to speak just like Piaf, down to the tiniest inflection. She captured her movements, including the stiffness caused by the arthritis in her hands. Marion went way beyond imitation. She brought an incredible power and humanity to her work. When I saw her as Piaf for the first time, even before Didier Lavergne’s magnificent make-up was complete, I just stopped in my tracks. I knew it would work.
• Alain Goldman (Producer)
Although I knew nothing about Edith Piaf (except her song ‘Je ne regrette rien’) I was very eager to see this on the big screen. Especially since French movie magazines brought exclusive previews and coverages months before its theatrical release. I was not disappointed. The film’s absolutely breathtaking in terms of sound and visuals, esp. when you see it on the big screen. And although I admire many performances I am somewhat reluctant to call them the best ever. In his case though, I am convinced I was shown the best performance by an actress/actor ever! Marion Cotillard sure is deserving of every award there is out there! As a person not familiar with the details of Piaf’s life I’d have appreciated more specific details. I got somewhat confused by who is who in Piaf’s entourage. Of course I ‘felt’ Piaf’s character but I still don’t think I know her life. Anyway, this is a must-see film despite its over-length and its ‘messy’ approach. Of course that ‘messy’ approach works quite well as a stylistic element to portray Edith Piaf’s equally ‘messy’ life.
This page was last modified on: August 31, 2012