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Olivier Dahan's biopic of Édith Piaf is a beautiful bruiser. It begins as it ends, with Piaf a luminous wreck, a tough broad who clings to a certain girlish innocence. Marion Cotillard claims the film from the start with an intensity something like what the singer herself must have had. There is never any doubt that La Môme is going to be very interesting.
What's surprising is that it's also gripping. Emotionally, it's a fairly violent film, and there's a fair amount of violence on the screen as well. Piaf's childhood is a series of horrors to which she adapts with eerie determination. There is her paternal grandmother's brothel, where she is all but adopted by one of the prostitutes, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner. Then there is the circus into which her father, a contortionist (Jean-Paul Rouve) drags her. There is the keratitis, which renders her blind for some time. There is her discovery that, unlike her mother, she can hold an audience when she sings in the streets. There is the championship fight in which the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), wins the title. Even there, the scene is fraught with anxiety: how will Édith survive this? As played by Ms Cotillard, Piaf is a steam boiler whose pressure gauge runs consistently in the red.
Another victim of violence is linear order. Mr Dahan and his co-writer, Isabelle Sobelman, have sliced and diced Piaf's story in order to fashion a narrative arc of formidable emotional coherence. It begins with an all-but unwanted child and ends with a woman who has been exploded by her wants. (They make excellent use of date-stamping, providing a year and a location every time the story jumps.) In the beginning, people do things to Édith; at the end, she does them to herself. If, in the earlier scenes of Piaf's later life, the woman is falling apart, she is breaking that fall at the end. The film concludes with the triumphant introduction, in 1960, of the song that would become Piaf's signature in the United States, "Non, je ne regrette rien."
The climax of La Môme is extremely artful, and to the the inattentive viewer it will be puzzling or merely very sad. In fact, however, it explains why the buoyant early Édith became the self-destructive later Édith. The morning after she has telephoned Marcel from New York, and successfully implored him to fly over from Paris, she wakes up in his arms: he has arrived! She insists on fetching breakfast for him. In the kitchen, her childhood friend and companion Mômone (Sylvia Testud) is sitting glumly at the table. Édith brushes her off and gaily carries the breakfast tray back to Marcel. While he sips the coffee, she remembers that she has bought him a present, a watch. But where is it? She can't find it anywhere. She shouts to her entourage that the watch must be found. Her assistant, Ginou (Caroline Raynaud), cowers in a doorway, her cheeks streaked with tears. Presently Piaf is surrounded by people in her living room. Louis Barrier, her manager (Pascal Greggory), breaks the news that Marcel has died in a plane crash. So fully has Édith anticipated the bliss of reunion with Marcel that, in a way, it has really taken place.
This very moving scene comes long after the midnight drive in the rain that lands Piaf in the hospital and vulnerable to a morphine addiction. But it is only afterward that Édith cuts her luxuriant hair, weeping, in the bathroom. By this time, even the inattentive viewer will have come to associate short hair with broken Édith. The short hair also comes to symbolize a cast-iron talent that would not give out until the singer's body did. As long as she could stand up, Édith Piaf could electrify an audience - and Marion Cotillard gives us some idea of how this magic was worked.
La Môme ("môme" means "kid" in Parisian; "piaf" is a similarly local word for "swallow.") is an extremely well-made film, with excellent performances (including one by Gérard Depardieu, as Louis Leplée, the nightclub owner who discovered and named Piaf), intelligent settings that shift tellingly from drab to colorful and back, and a dramatic rigor that the director and his leading lady never let slip. While La Môme is always intelligible in real-world terms, it is the opposite of a dutiful account of someone's life. (The wartime years are excised; Piaf's Résistance work goes unmentioned, as does her success at entertaining the Germans.) It would be a fascinating film even if Édith Piaf had never existed. (June 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press