The role of Edith Piaf must count as one of the most challenging real-life potrayals that any French actress could hope for. One of those classic legends in her own lifetime, her rise from obscure poverty to international stardom came on the brink of the Second World War – a war in which she was to play an active part, not just as the best-known voice of France, but also as an active participant in the French Resistance.
In fact, so incredible was Piaf’s life – she was certainly no mere singer – that many aspects are almost unbelievable, and remain shrouded in uncertainty and mystery. As a child she was supposedly miraculously cured of both deafness and blindness after her grandmother, who ran a brothel, had a whip-round of her prostitutes to send the young Edith on a pilgrimage. Earning a living singing on the streets, Piaf married young and had a child aged just 16, though the baby later died. She would later be implicated, but acquitted, in the murder of her first nightclub manager, before hitting the big time in 1940, becoming a friend of the stars and a favourite of the occupying German forces. Touring America after the war she was a true international star, before dying of cancer at the age of just 47.
In other words, there is more than enough material here for a magnificent biopic, and more than enough doubt about aspects of Piaf’s life to allow the filmmakers plenty of leeway. The only difficulty the film’s makers must have had was in finding an actress capable of doing such a remarkable woman, with such a distinctive and well-known voice, justice.
It’s always dangerous to start predicting Oscars so soon after the last ceremony’s past – more often than not something unexpectedly brilliant crops up at the last minute and makes all previous predictions null and void. Nonetheless, you could do worse than have a flutter on this glorious tribute to the iconic French singer – not just for winning in the Best Foreign Film category, but also for Marion Cotillard to achieve the almost unheard of feat of getting a Best Actress nomination for a non-English-language film for her incredible central turn.
Most recently seen as Russell Crowe’s sultry love interest in the awfully misjudged A Good Year, Cotillard’s gloriously faithful rendering of Piaf marks her out as a talent well worth watching, part of the new generation of young French actresses that has begun to emerge in the last couple of years to replace the likes of Emmanuelle Beart and Juliette Binoche as the muses of Francophile cineastes worldwide. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Piaf throughout, and lip-synching to the songs perfectly – the filmmakers sensibly realising that no one could do a good enough imitation of such an idiosyncratic way of singing – Cotillard’s performance is nothing short of staggering.
After the recent glut of musical biopics, from Ray and Walk the Line through the fictionalised take on Diana Ross and the Supremes that was Dreamgirls, audiences may be beginning to tire of this new biopic subgenre. But before giving up on real-life musical films for good, give this one a go – because not only is it one of the finest French films in years, it must surely also rank of one of the best biopics ever to grace the silver screen.