La Vie en Rose: Biopic about Legendary Singer Edith Piaf

Picturehouse will release “La Vie en Rose,” the Edith Piaf biopic that took the 2007 Berlin Film Festival by storm, on June 8.

From the streets of the cutthroat Belleville district of Paris to the dazzling limelight of New Yorks glamorous concert halls, Edith Piafs life was a constant battle to sing and survive, to live and love. Raised in abject poverty, surrounded by hookers and pimps, Ediths magical voice made her a star on both sides of the Atlantic. Her passionate romances and friendships with the greatest names of the period–Yves Montand, Jean Cocteau, Charles Aznavour, Marlene Deitrich, boxing world champion Marcel Cerdan–made her a household name as much as her memorable live performances and beautiful renditions of songs she made famous internationally, La Vie en Rose, Milord, Hymn to Love, Non, je ne regrette rien and many more. But in her audacious attempt to tame her tragic destiny, the Little Sparrow, as she was nicknamed, flew so high that she could not fail to burn her wings.

What Drives an Artist

Writer-director Olivier Dahan recalls: “I wanted to make a film about what drives an artist. I was in a bookstore flicking through a book about Piaf when the idea suddenly came to me. I immediately sent a text-message to Alain Goldman. Five minutes later, he gave me the green light. He was right with me from the get-go. In fact, he got back to me so fast, I wondered for a moment what I'd got myself into!”

Producer Alain Goldman says: “I was keen to work with Olivier again. We're very close, professionally and personally, but I didn't have anything lined up with him. Then, on January 22, 2004, at 3:46 pm, I received a text-message from him, which read, “A movie about music and love. A tragic, romantic blockbuster. French subject matter, international appeal. A major film about Piaf.” That sums up the movie perfectly. I kept that message, that initial impulse, as a reference. During the writing process, and even further down the line, if we strayed away from it, we could go back to that basic precept. I immediately sensed that we would make the movie, that it would probably open up perspectives and that Olivier's text-message would remind us that we had believed.”

Dahan: “For me, Piaf is the perfect example of someone who places no barrier between her life and her art. The fusion between your existence and work is the very foundation of a true artist. Like everybody else in France, I knew some of her songs and something about her life, but no more than that. She was the ideal “in” for me to talk about what concerns me. The spark came when I saw a photo of her, as a young woman, walking in the street with her friend Momone. Few people have ever seen what she looked like so young. The prevailing image of her is from the 1950s and 1960s–the frail icon in the black dress. That photo gave me a glimpse of somebody completely different, who wasn't yet Edith Piaf and who intrigued me. I pictured a kind of bridge between the prevailing image and that photo of an uncut diamond.”

Filming a Celebrated Life

Goldman: “Filming a celebrated life is always a long process. Vatel and 1492 taught me that it takes roughly a year to research and digest all the necessary information, and find an interesting narrative form. At first, Olivier, who is very visual and intuitive, didn't want to write the film. I had to convince him to do it. I needed his precision, his grasp of what is essential. I knew he'd have some very personal things to say in the film things which he alone could express. It was his unique vision of Piaf's life that interested me.”

Dahan: “I read everything ever written about her, published or not, from her lifetime to the present day. At the same time, I started to write, combining what stood out for me in my reading and what I wanted to express beyond the question of Piaf's life. I think I have a good idea of what an artist feels whether it's Piaf or any other. Apprehension, anxiety, desire… I didn't want to make a biopic, but I did want everything that was in the movie to be real. It's just that, at certain points, especially concerning her childhood, which she rarely discussed, I extrapolated, using the few elements at my disposal.”

Goldman: “As the script took shape, I saw how Piaf's life was even more dramatic than one of her songs – a tragedy with a little bit of everything! Abandoned and raised in a brothel; blind, briefly, in childhood; on the road with her father, before winding up in the Pigalle district of Paris at the prey of a pimp. And just when her career takes off, she is accused of murder and has to start back at the bottom. The greatest novelist couldn't have dreamed up a better story. Piaf is one of those rare performers with universal appeal men, women, young, not so young… And not because she appeals to baser instincts. She elevates us. Her voice fascinates people across social and cultural barriers. Everybody can identify with her. Piaf is an icon, a beacon and we need her more than ever today. Her unique stature goes far beyond our borders. That's why the film has brought interest from so many countries, including English-speaking territories that often remain impervious to French movies.”

Dahan: “During my research, I accumulated lots of facts and, above all, the confirmation of my initial intuition. Piaf is undeniably the archetype of an artist. Generally, when artists begin to self-destruct, their art regresses. In that sense, Piaf is an exception. As her body waned, her art rose higher, became purer. That's pretty rare. Even in decline, everything was there in her voice and her will to sing and perform as never before. She never gave up.”

“I don't believe in the tormented artist. Like everybody else, Piaf clearly had happy times, even when you would least expect. I don't agree that being unhappy is a prerequisite to being a great artist, or even an artist. On the contrary, you have to work at not being unhappy. In many biographies, the subject's childhood is skimmed over. Yet, those early years condition the rest of our lives. The key often lies in childhood.”

“Almost every scene we shot, including the dialogue, comes from the first draft. I reworked the structure of the script, but not the content. The opening scene is exactly as I began the script. In her writing and speech, Piaf expressed herself very well. I used her words for the dialogue. She went straight to the point without any verbiage. I read her correspondence, including the unpublished letters, and I was struck by the quality of her writing, her honesty and acute judgment.

“Despite the fact that she was hugely famous, for me, the subject of the film was very intimate, because I put into the film exactly what I wanted to say. I never felt overwhelmed by her stature. I wanted to paint a portrait. Telling her life-story didn't interest me per se. The events I show help to build up the portrait. I always tried to be truthful, respectful, connecting with her, without idealizing her. She never idealized herself or her art.”

Embodying the Person

Dahan: “I approached casting the film intuitively. There are a lot of characters and, for each one, my choice went beyond professional considerations. It was gut feeling. Beyond their talent as actors, they all move me.” He adds: “I didn't know her personally, but I immediately thought of Marion Cotillard to play Piaf. I saw her in several movies that showed she had the dramatic talent that was vital for the role and that few actresses possess.

“Piaf is an icon. Her face, voice and silhouette are instantly recognizable. For audiences to accept what I was trying to say, there had to be a likeness between the actress and Piaf. Marion is prettier but there is a definite resemblance when you look at early photos of Piaf. I sent her the script and then we met. We didn't have much time, so we didn't really do any tests, just a half-day for make-up. However, I asked Marion to research the part in the same way I had, by reading books and watching old footage. I think that she approached the character intuitively, like me, and that was the best way to do it.”

Goldman: “Olivier immediately sensed that Marion bore a marked resemblance to Piaf in the years when it was impossible to hide your true self. Marion did an amazing job. Not only did she get into the mind of the character, she also got into her skin. By some strange miracle, she began to speak just like Piaf, down to the tiniest inflection. She captured her movements, including the stiffness caused by the arthritis in her hands. Marion went way beyond imitation. She brought an incredible power and humanity to her work. When I saw her as Piaf for the first time, even before Didier Lavergne's magnificent make-up was complete, I just stopped in my tracks. I knew it would work.”

Dahan: “We were pressed for time, so we had to perfect the make-up during the shoot. We hadn't gone far enough. I stopped shooting for a day to try out various ideas. Didier Lavergne did an incredible job. He said that such heavy make-up would be impossible to film in close-up. I kept urging him on until he got the right result. It was a joint struggle. I had told Marion that, however much make-up she was wearing, it was her I wanted to see. I didn't want imitation. It was imperative that Marion should not be overwhelmed. I wanted her and Piaf to join together.”

“It was the first time I had such a strong relationship with an actress. We shared the same perception of Piaf. We fed off each other. It's Marion's voice we hear singing on certain occasions but most of the time she mimed. Miming to Piaf is complex. It's not just about cranking up the music and singing away. Marion practiced hard to get the breathing and rhythm right. She succeeded in embodying the character while capturing her soul. She makes her come alive.”

Those Who Mattered to Piaf

Goldman: “The film isn't a jaunt through Edith Piaf's life. One of Olivier's brainwaves was that he distinguished between those for whom Piaf mattered and those who mattered to her. It is her heart that leads us along. The film is an emotional journey movie with something to say, not a docudrama.

Dahan: “It wasn't about running through her hits and, even less so, through the long list of her celebrity acquaintances and lovers. I focused on the people who helped her build herself, which is why we see her manager and his assistant, but not Montand, Azanavour and other greats of the age. I was interested in the private Piaf, the woman, not the public icon. Marlene Dietrich is the only exception to that rule. I also wrote the scene when she met Chaplin, who told her that she had achieved through her singing what he had achieved through movies. As a matter of fact, Marion plays a lot of scenes like a silent movie actress. Like Chaplin, Piaf created a character. She intentionally created a myth and had no qualms about making things up, especially to reporters who swallowed stories that are still accepted at face-value today.”

Financing

Dahan: “The film wasn't easy to finance. Alain had to work very hard to secure funding. None of the potential backers seemed inspired by a film about Piaf. So, we had a very short prep time, maybe 3-4 months. More than ever, I had to rely on my intuition. There were no read-throughs or rehearsals, which I don't like anyway. On set, just like when I'm writing, it's the first draft spontaneity that I'm looking for. We had such a frantic schedule that I only saw some sets for the first time the day we were shooting there. The art department worked round the clock. Occasionally, the paint still wasn't dry on the sets when we started shooting.”

Goldman: “Every decision was an artistic one. That was the line we had fixed for ourselves and I'm glad we stuck to it. My company carried all the risk. We were constantly at the mercy of running over budget or schedule, and, boy, did we! But the film was so enthralling that we owed it to ourselves to give it every chance to succeed. Some backers pulled out. I have no ill feelings, but it was tough sometimes to hold on. Luckily, TF1 came through for us. The end result is entirely down to Olivier's talent, but I'm pleased we hung on in there to make it possible for him.

The Shoot

Dahan: “The shoot was spread over four and a half months in early 2006. We shot mostly in studio in Prague, with a few weeks in Paris and Los Angeles. The scenes in New York were shot in studio. Obviously, the film required lots of period sets. Some of them, such as a hallway in a hotel with a view of New York, were built for a single scene or even a single shot. There was a huge variety of sets of all sizes. The film goes from handcarts to limousines as Piaf went from early 20th century rural to mid-20th century urban. I didn't want to reenact it, but to immerse the audience in it. The narrative had to be impressionist, not linear. I wanted to intertwine various periods, skipping from one period to another by associating ideas or images, like when memories flash through your mind. Olivier Raoux, the production designer, was superb. On top of that, the finesse and chiaroscura of Tetsuo Nagata's lighting gave me stunning precision visually. It was the first time I had worked with him and I was mesmerized by his mastery of light.”

“We began with the scenes in the brothel, with little Manon Chevallier playing Edith aged 5. For the scenes when she's 10, Pauline Burlet took over. Every scene, from Edith's childhood through Marion's scenes, have the same intensity because she was the same person, though at different stages in her life. I applied the same approach to directing the two little girls as I did to directing Marion.

“I spent a long time pondering how I should approach one of the big moments in Piaf's life which has been told over and over when she learns that Marcel Cerdan, the love of her life, has been killed in a plane crash on his way to be with her. I imagined the scene as a sequence shot that would sum up her life in some way happy that morning, broken that night, but on stage even so. The scene was shot on a specially designed set. We rehearsed it and blocked it for a long time.”

The Soundtrack

On the subject of the soundtrack, the director says: “I let my instinct and senses choose the songs. Some, of course, were automatic choices. I also wanted to hear Piaf sing in English, to lose the image of the French icon. As an artist, she belongs to no one in particular but to anybody who listens to her. Every artist's ideal is to attain universality.”

Personal Film

Dahan: “Making this film took about three years. Three very eventful years. A lot of people gave of themselves not just to make a film that would get good reviews and do good box-office, but to make a film together that would worthy of the person whose story it tells and of our ambitions. I can still remember evenings spent with friends from the crew in the apartment I had in Prague. On the other hand, I have very few memories of events on set.”

“This is definitely the film that gets closest to what I am. For me, the story is always just a pretext, a means of communicating the feelings that I can only express in pictures and sound. I trained in art school, not film school. I try to have a painter's approach, not in the visual sense, but in terms of the creative process. Over the years, I try to keep it simple, to get better by digging as deep as possible into my own self. Actually, while it tells and respects Piaf's story, this film is very autobiographical. If my own life were made into a film, it would be no more truthful than this one. The evidence shows that Edith Piaf had faith. Personally, I'm still looking. I'm lacking that inner voice that would guide me. Unless, of course, it is intuition…”