There are two reasons why La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan’s new biopic about the life of legendary French singer Edith Piaf, might be one of the best movies of the year so far. The first is how the filmmaker created a non-linear visual portrait of Piaf’s life through her songs, but more importantly, it’s the astonishing way that 32-year-old actress Marion Cotillard (pronounced “coat-tea-yar”) was able to capture the many phases of Piaf’s life and career from singing on the streets of Belleville in her 20s to her later years, as she lay dying of cancer and could no longer perform.
Recently, ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Olivier and Marion about the astonishing film and a performance that’s likely to be remembered come Oscar time.
To kick things off, Dahan explained why he wanted to make a movie about Piaf’s life, and he told us of the difficulties he had getting others to understand why it was important. “For a long time, I wanted to make a movie about an artist and it seemed to me that Edith Piaf was the perfect example of what an artist could or should be in the way of mixing life and art together all the time, to be totally committed to her art and to be very truthful. No lies. When she was on stage, even when she was sick and dying, she was there for the people. My producer had been working pretty hard to find the money to do this movie. It wasn’t so easy, because there were a lot of people in France telling him and me that making a movie about this old singer wouldn’t be of interest for young people. Most of them didn’t really want to finance the movie because they thought it was dusty and old-fashioned, it wasn’t really modern. I was sure I could make something modern with this character, but at the beginning, it wasn’t so easy.”
“I did no casting,” he said about his search for the perfect Edith Piaf. “Marion was my first idea from the very beginning. I really didn’t think about anyone else. I was sure she was the one, it’s very simple. [My producers] wanted me to meet other actresses just to be polite, but I was sure at this time that Marion would make the movie. From the very start of the writing process, I was just thinking about her. Marion is a good singer but it wasn’t important, because from the beginning, I wanted the real voice of Piaf in the movie.”
“I didn’t know anything about her life,” Cotillard told us when asked if she was intimidated about playing such a legendary personality. “When I started to discover her life, I felt something very close immediately, so I was not so intimidated by the fact that she was an icon. The thing that intimidated me was more to play a sick old lady that looks much older than she is in reality. That was a scary thing for me.”
Cotillard told us about the early influences of Piaf on her life before getting the role. “I have an ancient memory from when I was a little girl. I heard her voice, and I thought she had a very strong voice. When I started to work on this project and I discovered all these pictures, the footage and interviews, and the movies she did as an actress, my first impression was the strength and at the same time, the weak person she could be, the balance of these two opposite things was something to discover. Sometimes, I use music in order to help me to get through different kinds of emotions, and several times before this project, on other movies, I used Piaf songs, so I had an intimate relationship with those songs. I had that image of that little sparrow, as they called her, with that black dress and that strong and amazing voice. The thing is that in her time, she would share her personal life with the audience and the press each time she had an accident or a lover. The new generation, they just don’t know anything about her intimate life, but they know her songs, because she wrote the most beautiful love songs. When you have all those shows here like ‘American Idol,’ we have the same in France, and each year, they would sing Piaf. It’s just about her intimacy that the new generation doesn’t know.”
We wanted to learn a bit more about the non-linear nature of the film and how Dahan cut between Piaf’s early and later years quite fluidly, particularly whether he scripted the movie that way or came up with that structure after shooting the film. “I really didn’t change anything during the editing. It was already written like this,” he admitted. “Actually, it was like that from the first draft of writing. The first week, we just shot the very young Edith, and it was a good way to enter for me as a director into the movie, because I really like to work with children. I’m really comfortable with them on the set.”
That must have been difficult for his star who had to switch gears between playing a young Piaf that was closer to her own age and playing her when she was much older. “When I saw the schedule and I saw that the fourth day of shooting for me was the scene where she decides not to do the Olympia and then Mr. Dumont comes and sings [“No Regrets”] and she has that resurrection. I saw this and I was like ‘Wow, man, this is the big jump straightaway.’ I was a little bit scared of that but I realized that it was the better way not to be so scared by starting the young years. The fact that it was all mixed–I was young and then old and then I was my age–I think it was a good thing that they did it like this, because after four or five days of old period, it was so good to come back to the younger one. I found my marks in all the periods and then it was just about enjoying doing something I know I can do and I can have fun with. About the make-up, it was a good thing too, because when we’d take the make-up off, the latex, the glue and everything, the prosthetics, it was like 30 days with the make-up on which is quite a long period, and it’s better if it’s spread over four and a half months.”
The two of them also talked about working with France’s most famous living actor, Gerard Depardieu, who plays Louis Leplée, Piaf’s first manager (and the originator of her name) “He’s such a character,” Marion told us. “He’s an amazing actor that all people know, but on the set, he really creates an atmosphere. He’s a very simple guy to talk with, very open and funny. It was one week, but because we were shooting many emotional scenes, that week was a little piece of happiness and laughing. It was great to work with him. He is one of the most incredible actors in France.”
“Actually, he’s like Piaf, he’s the same kind of person,” Dahan added. “He’s always mixing life and work in a funny way. He has a lot of humor that I like, and it was a very nice experience to work with him. He doesn’t make you feel his experience. He has this great gift, like when you see Gerard talking with anybody on set, he doesn’t care if they’re on the crew or a child, he talks to everybody, he’s not superficial.”
We asked the actress and director what they felt Edith Piaf was searching for and received two very different answers. “I think she was searching for love forever,” Marion said, “and it’s very understandable, because she was abandoned when she was a baby. I guess that when you’re abandoned as a baby, you will search for love your entire life.”
“I think from the very beginning she wanted to be a star, because she didn’t want to stay and sing in the street. From the very beginning, she knew she had a voice, and she wanted to become someone, but not to change herself to become someone else, but just to become what she was. Leplée was the very first one to trust her, because just before that, she was just singing in the street and for the very first time, someone engaged her in a cabaret and she was really singing for an audience even if this audience wasn’t so big but they were there to listen to her.”
“Leplée, he was her savior really,” Marion agreed. “He was the man who got her from the streets, and for her, it was a disaster when he died, because he was like her father, he believed in her, and at that time, because she was accused of being involved with his murder, it was a very big loss for her.”
We asked Marion if she was prepared for the kind of attention she’s likely to receive for her performance as Piaf. “Because I’m not a total newcomer in France, I have that quality to be able to take a step back, so I didn’t have to have a special preparation for this. The people I’m working with, I trust them. I’ve worked with them for a long time and they’re beautiful support for me. It’s something to get that attention, but it’s also about the movie, and I’m very happy this movie has the chance to be seen all around the world.”
And how will she follow up this landmark role and performance? “Nothing that I can talk about right now, but it’s going to be a stage musical, sort of rock opera.”
Olivier concluded by telling us what he hopes audiences will come away with after seeing the movie. “Even in France, people don’t know so much about her life. A lot of French people know her songs because they still play them on the radio, but not everyone knows about the story of her life. Here, it’s worse, because for sure, she’s not American, so it’s different. I didn’t have any expectations from the audience in France, so I can’t have any expectations here neither. I would just like that the people who go to the theatre to see the movie like it.”
La Vie en Rose opens on Friday, June 8, in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.