Can a film be unfailingly earnest in the treatment of its subject yet also exceedingly self aware? Apparently it can. Director Olivier Dahan, who has been working in relative anonymity, seems to have found his cinematic muse in what amounts to a very traditional biographical treatment of legendary French singer Edith Piaf.
Utilizing a familiar temporal dissonance technique, the story is told using several paralell narrative strands, with young street urchin Edith co-existing alongside the bent broken-winged song bird she had become. It so conforms to our expectations of the era in matters of costume, behaviour and sets, I’m a bit at a loss in explaining why it all comes across so freshly.
There are the songs themselves, of course, the originals, still testament to Piaf’s indescribable power, the voice of famously vinegared joie de vivre. Marion Cotillard as Piaf has done something remarkable with the role, inhabiting the character with passionate ease, both as roughly hewn diva and sadly decrepit middle-aged woman. She surmounts the script’s worst excesses of melodrama as Piaf endures one heartbreak after the other. Filled with every rags-to-riches cliché — the well-heeled impressario who discovers her, the demanding mentor who improves her, the childhood best friend who resents her, the true love whom she cannot have — and the inevitable show-must-go-on fainting spells before the gasps of stunned audiences, it’s all so beautifully shot and passionately executed, we can forgive its excess, much the way Piaf’s entourage indulges her. And yet for all its inevitability, I was no less interested in the texture of the narrative 140 minutes after the opening credits. So that’s got to count for something.