As the weather has not been conducive to gardening, and as I don’t read much during the summer, and as there wasn’t much to do last night, my wife talked me in to watching a motion picture, something I rarely do. This was a French film made in 2007, a biography of Edith Piaf (biographical films, I learned, are now called biopics). I am hardly a movie critic but I can’t resist commenting on this experience.
To me this was an unpleasant film about an unpleasant time, an unpleasant place, an unpleasant life, and (in this movie, at least) an unpleasant woman. This is not to say it was not a fine film, I guess it was, it seemed to be well cast, the performance of Marion Cotillard (as Piaf) was truly remarkable (she won an academy award for it), and the supporting cast performed their roles about as well or better than could be expected, including Gerard Depardieu whose role was quite limited. On the blurb that comes along with this Netflix disc it claims, “…director Olivier Dahan creates a loving portrait of legendary Parisian singer Edit Piaf…” I did not think this was a loving portrait of Edith Piaf, indeed it seems to me the director concentrated so exclusively on the negative aspects of Piaf’s life there was virtually nothing that could be considered “loving” at all. This is perhaps understandable as so much of Piaf’s mystique has to do with her terribly unpleasant early life, the alcoholic mother who tried to be a singer, her father who performed as a contortionist in the circus, her years as a child living in a brothel run by her grandmother, her temporary prostitution and exploitation by a pimp, the drinking, drugs, and what have you. Although she became a great success as a singer there is little attention paid to how this came about and what role she actually played in it herself, other than her being discovered singing on the street, given a job in a nightclub, coached for a short time by a teacher, and eventually succeeding on a rather grand scale. The years of her greatest successes were reduced to shots of newspaper headlines, she was rarely shown doing anything positive, having fun (other than drinking), or in any very positive light at all. The closest one comes to seeing her happy is during her year and a half (adulterous) affair with Marcel Cerdan, the year in which he became the world champion boxer by defeating Tony Zale. Even this brief period of happiness turned sour when Cerdan was killed in a plane crash on his way to France to be with her. Her reaction to this tragedy is by far the most moving scene in the film.
As you probably know, she died fairly young, addicted to heroin, stricken with terrible arthritis, and reached a point where she could no long perform at all. I do not believe the director deliberately tried to give a negative portrait of her, but the myths of her life are so strong they seem to override everything else about her. She must have had (or at least I assume so) real moments of happiness (there is one brief scene of her in California, riding in a convertible, laughing and enjoying herself) was unusually successful and reached the epitome of her profession, was married for a time, but the movie says little about any of this. In fact, watching the movie you suddenly realize she is married, have no idea where the husband came from, who he was, what, if anything, he meant to her, and so on, all very strange to my way of thinking. Not only that, it is only at the last moment you realize she had a child who died of meningitis. There is no doubt that Cotillard’s performance dominates the film but she does not make Piaf into anything even approaching a very likeable human being, hunched over, awkward, mostly angry, drunk, and difficult. Aside from her remarkable voice Piaf does not come across as a very likeable person. Although the film was shot in color it was so depressing I think of it in black and white. It is undoubtedly a pretty realistic portrayal of her life which was, beyond doubt, unpleasant in the extreme. It is much to her credit that she managed to make of it a success, it is a shame she does not receive much credit for it. She must have been much more of a person than how she is portrayed in this stark portrayal.