Magazine article Filmmaker

I Am a Bird Now

Magazine article Filmmaker

I Am a Bird Now

Article excerpt

Marion Cotillard creates a riveting portrait of artistic inspiration and excess in Olivier Dahan's LA VIE EN ROSE.

IN PERSON, FRENCH ACTRESS AND STAR MARION COTILLARD IS TALL, CONFIDENT and with a quicksilver responsiveness that skips from laughter and exuberance to moments of intense thought and introspection. Dressed casually in blue jeans and a blouse, taking interviews at New York's Gramercy Hotel, she seems very far away from the character of Edith Piaf she plays in Olivier Dahan's La Vie en rose, which just had its American premiere at New York's "Rendezvous with French Cinema" series.

I am careful to say here "the character of Edith Piaf." While Piaf fans will marvel at Cotillard's ability to seemingly inhabit the diminutive body (Piaf was 4'8'') of the beloved French singer and icon, the actress is quite clear that her performance is a construct, a synthesis of what's known of Piaf's life story, Dahan's dramatic interpretation of it, and elements of Cotillard herself. Sharing with Dahan a bold approach to the sometimes musty genre of the biopic, Cotillard's performance, which will undoubtedly be recognized come awards time, can be placed alongside Forest Whitaker's in Bird and Jeffrey Wright's in Basquiat in the way it blasts through historical detail to get at emotional truths about the life of an artist.

Dahan, working from his and Isabelle Sobelman's script, allows Piaf's music - both its melodies and the outsize emotions contained within its lyrics - to guide the film's structure. La Vie en rose jumps back and forth across decades, compressing biographical detail (Piaf's daughter, who died in infancy, only appears in what might be an hallucination on her deathbed) while giving full play to the songs. And while Piaf may have died tragically at 47, with illness and drug use transforming her body into that of someone many years older, the film ends triumphantly with her best known song, "Non, Je ne regrette rien," which, in her later years, became her credo. The real Piaf would surely have not wanted it any other way.

How much did you know about Edith Piaf when you were first approached for this part? I knew a few songs and that she always dressed in black when she was onstage. And I knew that she had a very specific body language [when singing] her songs. But that's it.

For the young French audience, is she someone who seems very much of the past, or does she still have a presence in the culture ? In one way, yes, she is from the past because we don't make this kind of music anymore. The way she sang with the rolling of the R's is very specific to that time. But people still listen to her music. Her songs are love songs, and I think people still listen to Piaf because her songs are eternal. So in a way it's old, and in a way it's not.

Did you have a central conception of Piaf's character that you based your performance around? Yes, of course, I have an idea [of Piaf] based on all I read about her life, which was a life of extreme things. She was an extreme person. Olivier Dahan and I, we had the same idea. The idea was, well, it's hard to put it into words. We loved her for sure, but we also saw her dark side. Olivier really wanted to show that, so we were not like lovers without eyes and ears.

How did you work together with Olivier to build the performance? I didn't know Olivier before we met for the project. …

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