For a number of reasons the English-speaking world has been unable to rid itself of what it has been in love with since the beginning of the nineteenth century: a French goddess, fair and free. It has ruminated in drunken bewilderment on this obsession, and has gone so far as to take lovers from all ends of the earth, the more exotic the better; it has whiled away the hours in disavowal of France's strengths, its virtues, its breath, its scent; but it has returned to it again and again as the one woman it cannot deny. France has much of what we have come to admire about Northern Europe – science, philosophy, aestheticism, a precise sense of justice, and a taste for danger tempered with a greater taste for truth. If Germany is indeed the epicenter of all modern thought and disciplines, France is a muse lingering astride the battlements, a waifish reminder of a life less structured or, I should say, less ordinarily structured. It is still remarkable that France, awash in hedonism, art, and beauty, is still a Catholic country that has no qualms about praising something greater that it cannot understand. The average Frenchman may no longer be a churchgoer, but a sense of order – greater order – allows him to live his life with the knowledge that it is not all in vain (Russians adhere to a similar philosophy, which would explain the long and fertile relationship that intellectuals from those countries have enjoyed). Perhaps a better description of the feeling one gets patrolling the streets of Paris or Lyon or Marseilles is one of cultural gentility, of a confidence wrought through centuries of apprenticeship and mastery, a knowledge of the world based on principles, beliefs, and institutions. And for all of France's history and achievement, this feeling is refreshing. It is refreshing because our world today is still being assaulted by nihilists in the guise of cultural theoreticians who wish to posit relativism, contradiction, taboo, and irony as the lonely breakwaters in an ocean of nothingness and insignificance. Yet if these same theoretical men were to descend the ghat to the water they hope will flood everything civilized, proper, and beatific, they will espy in this blueness only their own loathsome specters. France, a resting place of many of these dullards, will always be the beacon of culture amidst the pagan hordes. And the songs it will sing in joyous abandon may very well resemble the soundtrack to this recent film.
The story of Édith Piaf, née Gassion (Marion Cotillard) has the familiar ring of tragedy. Born in an immigrant-laden district of Paris to parents with Italian and Algerian blood, Gassion struggled repeatedly against hunger, destitution, and lack of respect – the plague of the poor – only to struggle later in life with alcoholism, drug abuse, embezzlement, and exhaustion – the plague of the wealthy. Along the way she would meet the usual passel of pimps, criminals, prostitutes, and other underworld surlies; some of her most tender moments are shared with a woman of ill repute named Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) in the brothel run by her grandmother, a very convenient place for her father to abandon her. Once he finally returns and takes her away kicking and screaming (how a child can emerge with a semblance of security from such a setup is beyond conventional mores to guess) the waif Gassion (la môme of the original French title) has been sufficiently exposed to violence, cruelty, and lives without the possibility of change and improvement to know that she may not have much time on this earth and she'd best make good use of it.
As such, and at the behest of her father, a professional contortionist, Gassion begins to sing. She drifts away from family (her mother, whose alcoholism would be passed on to her daughter, makes a brief and jarring appearance) and into circles of people who care about her even less but are enamored with her potential. In time and for stage purposes, she is dubbed "Piaf," "sparrow" in the local argot and representative of her diminutive size and powerful voice. There is the usual assortment of backstabbings, blowups, organized criminals, and one passionate affair with the polar opposite of Piaf – a famous boxer who was world champion until he lost to this American prizefighter and subject of another well-known film. The last years slip by in a wicked haze of ill-advised cocktails, iller health, and failed concerts, none of which did much to diminish her fame in the eyes of the general public – the sign of a true icon. When Piaf cannot perform, there are always her records, passed around like some inexorable drug, and the masses stay satisfied. When she dies and is denied Catholic rites for, among other things, having an affair with a married man, thousands gather at this famous cemetery to hum her songs until their notes turn to tears.
I have not detailed many of the film's twists and turns because they are all predictable yet, to the best of our knowledge, quite accurate. Given filmmakers' tendencies to romanticize and re-imagine their subjects' existence, one shudders to think of the misery and suffering that Piaf actually endured in her brief years, addled as she was by both fame and the contents of its barroom. That said, the real reason to see the film, apart from the music that may or may not have been part of your youth (it was certainly part of mine), is Cotillard. Thanks to skill, a constellation of genetic similarities, and clever cinematography, she transforms her very pretty self into the miniature cannonball that was Piaf with nary a seam or thread showing. The performance is extraordinary and utterly unexpected by us ignorant cinéastes who had only seen her work in some rather mediocre French films – the less said about them the better – and this adaptation of a book about southern France, its vineyards, and what can happen to people who actually take time to smell the roses. That's why "life through rose-colored glasses" (the English title and trademark song by Piaf) had as little to do with Piaf's life as the sentimental sweetness of her tunes has to do with many facets of our modern existence. But for a while, and perhaps longer, we can be convinced otherwise. There's nothing inherently wrong with that.