[6 July 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Olivier Dahan just had a feeling.
After seeing a photo of a 17-year-old Edith Piaf, the French director was overwhelmed by the urge to tell the troubled chanteuse’s story.
“There was just something about her - an attitude,” Dahan recalls. “My first impulse was that I had to make a movie about her.”
That film, “La Vie en Rose”, starring Marion Cotillard, is now in theaters.
Piaf, arguably France’s most beloved vocalist, was famed for using her strong, clear voice to bring a spirited, if often heartbreaking, element to songs such as “Non, je ne regrette rien” and “La Vie en Rose.”
Born Edith Gassion in 1913, the 4-foot-8 singer was nicknamed “La Ma me Piaf” (“The Sparrow Kid”) by her manager, Louis Leplee. During the course of her relatively short life, the singer moved from singing in the streets to nightclubs and, later, to grand music halls. Called the “soul of Paris” by Marlene Dietrich, Piaf’s 1963 death from cancer inspired thousands of fans to line the streets to watch her funeral procession.
All that, coupled with a troubled childhood (including a temporary blindness and living in her grandmother’s brothel) that grew into a troubled adulthood fraught with alcoholism and drug use, made Piaf’s story particularly silver screen-worthy.
But Dahan, whose previous films include “La Vie Promise” and several videos for the Irish band the Cranberries, admits he knew very little at first about his intended subject.
Like most French citizens, Dahan says, he had only a “passing knowledge” of Piaf’s storied life.
Thus, armed only with that initial impulse, the director devoured every last bit of information he could dig up on the singer. He read books, newspaper and magazine clippings, watched documentaries and archival footage, as well as listened to her music.
“It was like being an investigator, compiling and comparing to make sure it was true,” says Dahan, on the phone recently from San Francisco.
The resulting film is anything but a by-the-numbers documentary, however. Rather, “La Vie en Rose” unfolds as a sometimes dizzyingly array of flashbacks, flash-forwards and music video-styled vignettes, with a focus that is often unpredictable and unexpected.
Many dramatic moments in the singer’s life are heightened, such as abandonment by her cabaret-singer mother and circus acrobat father, and her alleged role as an accessory in Leplee’s murder (Piaf was ultimately acquitted). But other life-defining moments - the death of a young daughter and a failed first marriage, for example - are only briefly touched upon.
With so many storylines from which to choose, Dahan says he ultimately relied on instinct to craft his story.
“I had to go with intuition because I didn’t just want to make a biopic - I wanted to make an impressionistic portrait,” he says.
“I lead by emotion: `Does this touch me? Does this move me?’ Or: `I don’t like this, it doesn’t give me a thrill,’” he explains. “It was really so simple.”
Just as simple? Finding the right actress to embody Piaf.
Once again Dahan listened to his internal voice.
“I didn’t know Marion from before, I’d only seen her in a few movies,” he says of Cotillard, who is perhaps best known in the United States for a small role in Ridley Scott’s 2006 drama “A Good Year.”
“At the very beginning of the writing process, she suddenly came to mind - she was my first idea to play that role,” he says. “She is taller and more beautiful (than Piaf), but she’s very close in spirit.”
Although Cotillard is an experienced singer, the actress lip-synced Piaf’s music - no easy feat, Dahan says.
“It’s very difficult, and Marion was very careful because we wanted it to be as true as possible.”
Indeed, the film’s every last detail - from the way Cotillard moved her lips to how her face appeared as Piaf aged - was scrutinized and agonized over for accuracy.
“I am very exigent - demanding,” Dahan says, adding that he didn’t use the traditional storyboard approach to map out the film’s sequence. Instead, he simply visualized the entire story in his head.
“I didn’t just want to follow her life like it was (in the books),” he says. “I wanted to make something like a portrait. A portrait is more than just story-telling - it’s like a painting.”