Nowadays, most people know Edith Piaf – aka the Little Sparrow, aka La Môme, aka The Kid (the woman had a lot of nicknames) – for ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’, that monumental, melodramatic ballad whose defiant strains are often wheeled out whenever some struggling football manager or errant politician gets the chop.
What you might not be aware of is the trauma behind the tonsils – the bouts of childhood illness, her countless romantic heartbreaks, the baby daughter who died in infancy and her life-long battles with booze and drugs.
The problem with Olivier Dahan’s lavish, bulky biopic is that you may well emerge after more than two hours of meticulous actualisation feeling none the wiser about its fascinating subject. With a surfeit of incident and an embarrassment of dramatic riches at his disposal, the director adopts a non-linear approach that bounces around Piaf’s history with the fractured dream-logic of memory. One moment we’re with young Edith as she sings for change on the Paris streets; the next she’s a half-blind tot being nursed back to health by Emmanuelle Seigner’s kindly prostitute. Wait a couple of scenes and she’s a wizened crone, stricken with cancer and crippled by arthritis. Finally got a handle on where you are? Right, then it’s time to rewind to the Little Sparrow in her prime, knocked for six by the death of her boxer beau Marcel Cerdan ( Jean- Pierre Martins).
Dahan’s intention is to offer an emotive collage that can be wallowed in fully during the cinematic experience and then processed at leisure. Unless you come in with some prior knowledge, though, the lack of coherence means you’re always on the back foot, estranged from the action by a filmmaker’s caprice and a script that manages to be both hugely overstocked and bewilderingly selective. (There’s no room here, apparently, for Edith’s war-time involvement with the Resistance or her relationship with actor and singer Yves Montand.)
Musically, however, Dahan hits the spot and La Vie En Rose is beyond reproach. While Marion Cotillard’s protean performance – a vibrant tour de force that channels Piaf’s earthy charisma and fearlessly embraces her myriad contradictions – is the stuff Cesars awards are made of.
Marion Cotillard's majestic, uncannily accurate portrayal is the main reason to see a film that makes heavy going of an exceptional life. For all Dahan's lofty ambitions, you leave wishing he'd chosen a more straightforward way to retell Piaf's story.