In touch with the darkness

Special to The Times

FROM the first screenings of “La Vie en Rose” at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, there has been talk that Marion Cotillard’s turn as the great French singer Edith Piaf would be one of the best performances of the year.

Directed and co-written by Olivier Dahan, “La Vie en Rose,” which opens Friday, takes an unusual tack in conveying the tremendous ups and downs of Piaf’s extraordinary life: Rather than tell the tale in a strictly linear fashion, Dahan interweaves the eras and events of Piaf’s life, bouncing back and forth across the years to conjure a sense of the cumulative effect of the life on the art and the person.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 10, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Edith Piaf: A caption under a photograph of actress Marion Cotillard in Sunday Calendar’s Contents misspelled French singer Edith Piaf’s last name as Pilaf. Cotillard portrays Piaf in the film “La Vie en Rose.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Edith Piaf: A caption under a photograph of actress Marion Cotillard in the June 3 Calendar’s Contents misspelled French singer Edith Piaf’s last name as Pilaf. Cotillard portrays Piaf in the film “La Vie en Rose.”

Cotillard portrays Piaf from age 20 all the way to her death at 47. The actress shaved back her hairline and shaved off her eyebrows -- they were later penciled back in -- to better resemble Piaf. Achieving the ravaged look of Piaf’s later years would take up to five hours of makeup. (Dahan’s insistence on shooting extreme close-ups of Cotillard as the older Piaf would burn through a number of makeup artists.)


Her transformation in the film is staggering enough, made all the more so by seeing the glamorously understated Cotillard, 31, in person at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

It is difficult to reconcile the pretty, serene actress with the raging diva and the deathbed delirium of Cotillard’s performance -- it seems impossible for this to be the same person. Although many will find Cotillard’s Piaf a near-miraculous example of an artist becoming immersed in a role, for Dahan there is no such disconnect.

“From the very first day of shooting I said one thing to her, ‘Don’t disappear,’ ” he recalled. “I didn’t want to shoot Edie Piaf, I didn’t want to shoot the makeup, I wanted to shoot Marion.”

Cotillard said her first response after reading the script was immediate and incredulous. “It was so crazy to imagine one and only one person would play all this,” she said. “I started to ask myself, ‘Why does he think of me for her?’ I couldn’t understand.”

An air of mystery

PIAF’S life is the sort that is at once both over-examined and still shrouded in a certain mystique. The voluminous number of books written on her life, mostly in French, could fill multiple shelves in most any library. Her life has been brought to the screen numerous times before -- such as in Claude Lelouch’s “Edith and Marcel” -- but never before with the dramatic sweep of Dahan’s conception or the ferocious effect of Cotillard’s performance.

Moving across Piaf’s hard-scrabble childhood, high-flying celebrity and tragedy-tinged personal life to her broken-down final years, Dahan’s film is as notable for what is left out of Piaf’s life (for example, World War II and the depth of her drug addiction) as for what is included. The final sequences in particular, revolving around Piaf’s deathbed reveries, are buoyed by Cotillard’s mix of bold strokes and subtle nuance. It is easy to imagine why Cotillard feared “losing the thread,” as the story lines converge in its finale.

“It was a kind of intuition,” Dahan said recently of his conception for the structure of the film. Looking and behaving exactly as one imagines a French filmmaker to be -- artfully rumpled and willfully enigmatic -- Dahan claims he did a year’s worth of research and filmed his first draft of the screenplay.


“I wanted to make a film with an emotional narrative,” he said. “I didn’t want to make, really, a biopic. So I was just not concerned with the facts, more the emotional vibe of everything.”

Cotillard has been a rising star in France since her appearances in the wildly successful “Taxi” film franchise. She appeared in the Hollywood productions of “Big Fish” and “A Good Year” and won a French Cesar award for her supporting role in “A Very Long Engagement.” Even though the two had never met, Dahan had Cotillard in mind as he was writing the script; he said there was something in her eyes that reminded him of the young Piaf.

Her commitment to bringing Piaf to life also extended to an extensive rehearsal process for the live-performance sequences, which Cotillard described as both the most difficult part of the role and the aspect of her portrayal she is most proud of. Though she lip-syncs to Piaf’s recordings, Cotillard intensely prepared to make every breath and flutter of Piaf’s extraordinary singing seem as if they were coming from her own mouth.

Cotillard did not know much about Piaf’s personal life before reading Dahan’s script. She quickly realized that however fond she was of Piaf the artist, she would have to set that aside to portray the less laudable aspects of Piaf’s personality.

“When you admire someone, there’s a distance,” she said. “And I had to erase that distance, to be close to her, to try to understand her, her soul, her heart. When you admire someone, the dark side, you don’t want to see, and I really had to see that dark side, to discover that dark side.”

The strength of the awards-buzz surrounding Cotillard’s performance -- it’s never too early apparently -- was evidenced by the number of awards-season prognosticators who turned out to interview Cotillard on a recent swing through Los Angeles.


“I’m not intimidated by all this,” she says of the impending possibility of a full-on, Hollywood-style awards campaign. “I think it’s something you have to enjoy while it’s there. I wish to meet interesting directors and to tell interesting stories. That is my biggest wish. It’s not that I’m not interested in awards, but it’s just there is a time to enjoy that, to think about that, and the time is when it’s the time.”

After a rather pregnant pause, she closes the door on the topic with a gentle flourish -- “Voila.