Over the weekend, PJ and I saw the new bio-pic about the life and music of Edith Piaf, La vie en Rose. Here’s the trailer:

Piaf is, of course, the great French singer who rose to fame in the 1930s and became an international sensation after World War II. She lived an incredibly difficult and sometimes tortured life, but, like Judy Garland in America, she rose above her difficult childhood and tragic love affairs to become a great vocal artist. (Does that sound too prosaic?!)

Piaf's Grave While we were in Paris earlier this month, we visited her grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, which is also the resting place for Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein (and Alice B. Toklas), Jim Morrison, Moliere, Maria Callas, Richard Wright, Abelard and Heloise, Marcel Proust, Colette, Balzac, Delacroix, Gericault, Louis David, among many others. (While it’s weird to me that a cemetery would be a tourist attraction, I highly recommend a visit to this one if you have the time while you’re in Paris. It’s certainly a good reminder of our own mortality.)

This picture of her grave is from Wikipedia, which claims that it is one of the most visited graves in the cemetery. It is certainly well tended and someone had left flowers on it when we were there.

When we left to go see the movie, PJ admitted that he was a little hesitant to suggest we see it, since he worried that I would almost certainly become an Edith Piaf queen afterwards. It turns out he was right. I loved the movie and immediately came home and bought a two-disk set of her music.

But before I write about her music, let’s get back to the movie. I have to admit that I found it hard going for the first 20 to 30 minutes. In this early section, the film cuts back and forth between her childhood and various points in her adult life. This cutting creates (for me, at least) a coherent view of her early life, but I couldn’t get a handle on the adult stuff — I couldn’t keep track of when each scene was happening in relation to the other scenes of her later life. I also couldn’t keep track of who the other characters were. Consequently, I got a little irritated.

But then I had an epiphany: the movie isn’t really concerned with the minute details of Piaf’s life — it’s not that kind of bio-pic. If you want the dates and chronology, etc. you can certainly go back and watch the movie a second (or third) time and probably get all of that, but on a first viewing this film is more of an impressionistic biography. It wants to recreate the spirit, energy, and artistry of Piaf’s life and music. By giving us these disjointed scenes of her life in a seemingly random order, the film forces us to experience that energy and artistry rather than pay attention to her age or where she is or who she’s talking to.

Once I embraced the impressions of Piaf that it was creating for me rather than try to keep up with all of the details, I fell in love with it and her. The actress who plays her, Marion Cotillard, does an amazing job of embodying the singer. Her performance is made all the more impressive by the fact that she plays Piaf for her entire adult life, a period that stretches for some 30 years, and through increasingly debilitating illnesses. Once the movie gets past all of the childhood stuff, Cotillard’s body language is really what gives the film’s scenes their continuity — we can tell which part of her life we’re seeing by gauging how hunched over Cotillard stands.

I suppose all bio-pics about singers fail or succeed based on the performance scenes. Here too Cotillard does a wonderful job. For comparison’s sake, here a clip of Cotillard playing Piaf followed by one of Piaf in 1954:

It probably isn’t entirely fair to do a close comparison of the two — after all, Cotillard isn’t simply mimicking Piaf, but the two clips can show what she’s doing. I think she’s marvelous, and I really hope she gets an Oscar nomination.

As I said above, I bought a two-disk set of her music when I got home, and now I’m obsessed with it. Even though I understand very little of the French, I can certainly appreciate the artistry and musicality of what Piaf is doing. This appreciation grows as I find translations of the songs and read more about them and her.

My favorite of her songs so far is “Non je ne regrette rien.” This is the song that Cotillard is performing in the clip from the film just above. Here’s Piaf’s version:

I found both the French lyrics and an English translation of it here. It’s a great song and a wonderful vocal performance, strong and tender at the same time. I was also impressed by the fact that Piaf composed the lyrics for her signature song, “La vie en Rose.”

To close, I’ll show one more clip: Piaf singing “La vie en rose” in English in 1952. Enjoy!

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