PIAF – Images by Gaston Girbal and Bruno Calvo
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel
Director Olivier Dahan has uplifted the art of cinematic biography in his truly extraordinary story of Édith Piaf, LA VIE EN ROSE. Also known as “La Môme” – loosely translated as “the brat” – the film kicks and screams new life into the legendary Parisian chanteuse whose particular voice and message has withstood the Test of Time. Marion Cotillard’s performance as the tragic singer is miraculous. She embodies Edith Piaf as much as Edith Piaf personifies the heart and voice of France. Marion Cotillard places the term, “a great performance”, on the highest note of the scale.
Plucked from obscurity, the young Piaf begins her career with a song of freedom, the French National Anthem – “La Marseillaise”. Her father, a wandering minstrel street contortionist (played by Jean-Paul Rouve), is literally bending himself in half to eke out a living. One dreary morning, having fascinated a few on-lookers wrapping his knee around his neck, he hastily urges his shy and embarrassed little girl to step forward and sing.
JEAN-PAUL ROUVE – as Edith’s father, Louis Gassion and PAULINE BURLET – as 8 year old Edith. Photo by Bruno Calvo
Even then, young Edith’s voice and demeanor strikes empathy and common understanding among the passers-by. Fast-forward to 1935, the 20-year-old Edith – still singing in the streets, but with the fiery façade of a young woman – her vibrant chansons strike the discerning ear of a gentleman who hands her a card. Directed to a small but popular café, she steps forward and sings to producer Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu). After an inauspicious appearance in front of the café’s dimly-lit shocked and amazed regulars, Edith is spruced-up and entrusted to a smart vocal coach (see below). After refining her musicianship and drawing-out her latent talents as an actress, the approving teacher and savvy producer push her onto a larger stage with professional musicians and one very focused center spotlight.
With eyes on The Sparrow
Director Olivier Dahan did not personally know Gerard Depardieu prior to engaging him for the film. “Alain [producer Alain Goldman] suggested him to me,” says Dahan. “He plays Louis Leplée, who gave Edith her big break. From our very first meeting, we got on well. Gérard is similar to Piaf. He doesn’t distinguish between life and art. They intermingle.”
GÉRARD DEPARDIEU, as Louis Leplée – OLIVIER DAHAN, Director
Producer Alain Goldman worked with Depardieu on the epic biography of Christopher Columbus, 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Says Goldman, “In my career as a producer, he was the first actor I signed up for a film. When we got back from the shoot in Costa Rica, he predicted that we’d work together for twenty years. Ever since, I ask him to participate on each of my projects, even if only for a few days. Making a film with Gérard is not just making a film, it’s writing a small page of movie history.”
The city of Prague can boast of its success as “The Primary Location” (around four months-worth of locally-enjoyed capital gains) for the filming of La Môme, with a handful of time allotted to Los Angeles and – oh, yes – Paris. The scenes in New York were shot in a studio and not the one (left over from Rent) out at Treasure Island.
Goldman goes on. “The film required lots of period sets. Some of them, such as a hallway in a hotel with a view of New York, were built for a single scene or even a single shot. There was a huge variety of sets of all sizes. The film goes from handcarts to limousines as Piaf went from early 20th century rural to mid-20th century urban. I didn’t want to reenact it, but to immerse the audience in it. The narrative had to be impressionist, not linear. I wanted to intertwine various periods, skipping from one period to another by associating ideas or images, like when memories flash through your mind. Olivier Raoux, the production designer, was superb. On top of that, the finesse and chiaroscuro of Tetsuo Nagata’s lighting gave me stunning precision visually. It was the first time I had worked with him and I was mesmerized by his mastery of light.”
MARION COTILLARD and JEAN-PIERRE MARTINS
With its spectacular soundtrack, die-hard fans of Edith Piaf will wallow in the authenticity of Cotillard’s performance. She is spot-on with the lip-syncing and – when in the act of belting a song to the last row – exudes the energy of a finely-tuned roadster
“I like to sing”, admits Ms. Cotillard, “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.”
Performers are always asked about their “influences” – the question generally geared toward the related artists and celebrities (past and present) whose work inspired choices and kindled determination. One of the most unexpected revelations about the influences of Edith Piaf is her personal relationship with St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897, canonized 1925). In 2002, the Catholic Church raised Thérèse – affectionately known as “The Little Flower” – to the level of Doctor of the Church. Faithful followers in the cult of Thérèse know that with her – it’s all in the eyes. Edith Piaf, topping off at 4′ 8″, was nicknamed “The Little Sparrow” by producer Leplée. Little Edith suffers a serious setback resulting in what most believe will be permanent blindness. She is taken to the saint’s gravesite and prays for recovery. Upon her return home, that being a brothel, patience runs thin as Edith removes her bandage. She can see. Done! For the rest of her life, Edith will seek the calming gaze of Soeur Thérèse.
MANON CHEVALLIER (as Edith, age 5) and St. THÉRÈSE de LISIEUX, age 22 (1895)
“After my death”, said the young Carmelite nun (a victim of tuberculosis at 24) “I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth.” Perhaps in the same spirit, Edith says, “For me, singing is a way of escaping. It is another world. I’m no longer on earth.”
Not quite. After the gates slammed shut behind her, 15-year-old Thérèse never went beyond the convent walls. But in 2002, to celebrate the awarding of her Doctorate, her relics were placed into a small, elegantly ornate sarcophagus and sent out for a First World Tour. Arriving in New York City, a highly-polished group of uniformed police accompanied the precious cabin and its decorated guest into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and placed Doctor Thérèse under a large glass case. Visitors lined-up for days. Edith Piaf died of cancer in 1963. The Church denied her a Funeral Mass – citing the usual. But the enormous procession to Cimetière du Père Lachaise caused all of Paris to stop, to take notice, and to honor. In 1998, thirty-five years after her death, Piaf’s signature tune, “La Vie en Rose” was draped with the recording industry’s most coveted mantle, the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. The DVD and soundtrack of La Môme will be available worldwide.
La Vie en Rose was a golden choice to close the 50th Anniversary of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Premieres in New York and Los Angeles are scheduled for June 8th. For its star, Marion Cotillard, the shower of roses is just beginning.
MARION COTILLARD – Edith’s First and Lasting Lights
See Seán’s recent articles and interviews:
SPIDER-MAN 3, An All-American Cinematic Marvel
RIGOLETTO – SF OPERA Broadcasts on Classical 102.1 KDFC
JERSEY BOYS – Smashing Records in SAN FRANCISCO
NORMA SHEARER – Headlines the 12th ANNUAL SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
DON QUIXOTE – An Impossible Dream at SF Ballet
THE DAMNATION OF FAUST – Absolute Heaven at Davies Symphony Hall
JEANETTE MacDONALD – First Lady of “San Francisco”
An Interview with PASCAL MOLAT – Principal Soloist, San Francisco Ballet
TERRA HAUTE – An Interview with The Stars, John Hutchinson and Elias Escobedo
San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published over 2,000 responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing tecniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, visit Broadwaybelters.com, email Seán at firstname.lastname@example.org.