How do you tell the true story of a mythical woman? In epic proportions, of course. Co-writer/director Oliver Dahan explores the majestic life of iconic French singer Edith Piaf in this sprawling biopic. Liberally mixing legend with fact, the film travels through five decades (from the 1920s to the 1960s) of Piaf’s life and career. As the story jumps rapidly through time, the pace can be exhausting. But then again, that’s the point. Piaf’s life was fantastical and tragic. Dumped by her circus-performer father with a grandmother who operates a brothel, Piaf spends her early years dodging johns and being nurtured by ladies of the night. When her alcoholic father returns, he puts her to work singing on the streets, where a paternal nightclub owner (Gerard Depardieu) later discovers her. With a powerhouse voice and a seemingly insatiable taste for wild parties, Piaf fits right into the club scene.
The film jumps back and forth between her journey to stardom and her later days. A withered figure at 44, Piaf resembles an aging Judy Garland, tragically old beyond her years. Jaundiced and sickly from years of nonstop drinking and an obsessive morphine habit, the weak Piaf convalesces, wondering if she’ll ever sing again. Through two world wars, countless adoring fans, celebrity friends and wildly drunken escapades, Piaf truly embodies the “soul of Paris,” as Marlene Dietrich so famously said.
Without a doubt, Marion Cotillard’s (A Good Year) portrayal of Piaf is one of the best performances in recent memory. Taking on the awkwardly goofy, bug-eyed virtuoso with every fiber of her being, Cotillard practically jumps off the screen and sits down next to you in the theater. In fact, the film is so exhaustively immersive that the result of sitting through the nearly 2 1/2 hours is to feel the heavy weight of a lifetime of excess and heartbreak.
And perhaps due to these epic proportions, Piaf remains an enigmatic figure to the end. But like the real Piaf, the film’s depiction compensates for this lack of intimacy with its most powerful asset: her music. At once devastating and beautiful, Piaf’s singing never disappoints as Cotillard lip-synchs through countless gorgeous ballads. Ultimately, the film rests on her performance. And there’s no better homage to a woman who lived for every time she stepped onto the stage.