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September 9, 2007.
No more Freedom Fries,
it's back to French fries. Now that Francophobe George Bush and his ilk will
soon be gone, and French Pesident Nick Sarkozy kicks off his love affair
with all things Américain – it's okay again to love the French and revisit
their greatest icons. We have celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth
of General Lafayette (the French aristocrat who joined the American
Revolution and single-handedly got French support for the cause). Lately we
have been seeing and hearing a mini-revival of interest in Édith Piaf, the
"Little Sparrow" – the French Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie
Holliday all wrapped up in one little package.
Born Édith Giovanna
Gassion, the singer and actress – who died at 46 in October 1963 – is
enjoying this renewed interest through both a recent NYC Fringe Festival
play, "Piaf: Love Conquers All," a retelling of her history through song and
snippets (with a convincing performance by Naomi Emmerson) and through La
Vie En Rose, a striking new biopic that achingly retells her tough and
In La Vie En Rose,
French actress Marion Cotillard, previously known for her work in such films
as A Very Good Year, Taxi, and A Very Long Engagement, utterly
transforms herself into Piaf. Cotillard – who is maybe 5' 6" – uncannily
played the 4' 8" singer. Piaf was as a compact as a sparrow and was ravaged
through drink, drugs and cancer by the time she died. With her bedroom eyes
and convincing pout, Cotillard has always had her fans – but with this
performance she is being touted as Oscar-worthy.
In this world, an
international awareness of a particular subject is often achieved by finding
common ground through film and music. So what better way to do this than by
listen to Piaf – either on stage or screen?
Having made such an
outstanding transformation, what did you go through to inhabit this person?
You had her history... but what were the difficulties involved in making
yourself so much shorter and smaller?
It was not so hard. It
was just work and trying to have fun with something so vertiginous. There
were some technical parts which were hard, like lip-synching; and there was
a technical part about the character, of course, because I didn't know
anything about her life. I had to read some books and watch her a lot. I
tried to gather all I could find – pictures, footage and movies of her as an
actress. But the most important thing was to try to understand who she was.
This was not
technical. It was something you can't really explain, like when you meet
someone and you feel that you understand that person, so you will try
because you want to. In discovering the lives of people, there are some
things you like, and some things you don't. In order to understand someone
entirely, you have to understand what you don't like and then abandon your
judgment. And finally, when you abandon your judgment, you will maybe
understand her heart and her soul.
She looked like she
had fun yet there was so much tragedy in Édith's life. In dealing with so
much tragedy, did you have to separate yourself from her yet be true to her
at the same time?
I have never used my
own personal life and will never use it to feed a character. I don't want to
do that because I think it's dangerous for me to think of sad events in my
own life in order to go into a certain emotion. I really don't want to live
this. I'm not the person who will be sad about someone's life to be in those
kind of emotions.
I looked at her entire
life and yes, it was sad, but she was a very [alive] person. She wanted to
be happy; she loved to laugh, and she lived [enough for] 100 people. So as
an actress, I found great pleasure playing this tragedy because those are
huge emotions where you can express a lot of things and let go of a lot of
If you don't want
to use anything from your life as a basis for the character, what did you
draw on and how do you reach that character?
The emotion you give
to the character, of course, is your emotion. It's as if you take the
technical things of your emotions. The state of the emotions are created by
your personal life and all that you have lived, yes. It's hard to explain
because an emotion is just not technical.
When I read the script
for the first time, it touched me so deeply. And I used this emotion. It's
my emotion with this story. I have other emotions, which are very personal,
but this story gives me emotions, which must be in relation to my own
intimate emotions, because it's a whole thing. But I will never try to think
of something very sad in my life to try to do something, because I will be
sad for hours. When you do an emotional scene – like the death scene of [her
husband, the boxer/actor] Marcel Cerdan – after that, you're empty, but
you're fulfilled as well; you feel good if you think of a loss of yourself.
After that scene, that thought will still be in your mind and you won't
[lose] it. It's something you did [in your own life].
Basically the film
uses her voice and you lip-synch. Was there ever a concern about deciding to
have you sing or not sing?
I love to sing and
sang in a few movies. But we only had a few months with the money we had to
do this movie. It's obvious that in a few months I couldn't imitate or have
that unique voice she had worked on for years. Three months was absolutely
not enough time. So if I had had the time – and I don't know how much time I
would've needed – I would have tried.
At the beginning of
the project, it was a desire of Olivier [Dahan, the director] to have Piaf's
voice. We [did] not have all the recordings we needed, especially the ones
she sang when she was on the street. There were no recordings of songs like
"Fréhel" and "Mistinguett," so we needed someone to do this. We found an
amazing singer, [Jil Aigrot]. She's from Cannes, which is in the south of
France. They have a special accent and we asked her to have the old Parisian
accent; not to sing too well either because it was at the beginning of Piaf.
She committed herself entirely, worked hard, and really, did an amazing
Do you have any
favorite songs by Piaf?
Yes! Many. I love "Les
Amants d'un Jour," I love "Milord," I love "Padam" – especially "Padam." I
love "La Foule." And then I love a few songs that nobody knows. I have
listened to almost all those songs, and there are many.
Do you still listen to
No, but I still sing
sometimes "Correqu'et Reguyer." It's kind of slang. Even I couldn't
understand everything. But I studied the song. It's the one that I "sing" in
the scene when she does her first show. There are two songs, something very
calm, and she's like this [gestures] – this is "Correqu'et Reguyer."
What was your favorite
experience in making this film?
There are so many
things. But I was so afraid not to try to be aged to a 44-year-old, or
47-year old woman, [and with Piaf she really looked like she was 70]. I was
so scared about this. Then when I found my marks on the first scenes we were
shooting of this period, I felt that it was good to play with this [aging
process]. It was like when I was a kid and you play a dog, or an old lady,
and you just play at it. You don't try to be good; you just [do it to] have
fun. After a while, I really found how and where I could have fun with this
period – except for the makeup, which was very hot. [Performing this] was
what I preferred in the movie – especially when she was 40 and was in Los
Angeles, doing the part in California – I loved it.
What did you learn
from the experience of playing Édith?
It's hard to explain
in words what you learn for yourself, because it's a feeling that you will
keep forever. When you have had that experience of letting go of all that
you've built in yourself – just letting go [and] abandoning yourself to the
point of being one with what you're searching for. It's hard to explain, but
I feel stronger in a way.
When you first met
the director Olivier Dahan did you trust him, and did you think this film
I had read the script
before I met him for the first time. When I read the script, I was
speechless. I had just read the role of my dreams. I couldn't believe that
one guy could think that one person could do all those things. Yet when I
met him, there was something very natural. The funny thing was, we had our
rendezvous near my house, and I'm not far from Père Lachaise, the cemetery
where Piaf is buried. But when we arranged to meet, I made the mistake of
meeting in a bar nearby and there are two bars with almost the same name. So
I was waiting for him in one bar, and I realized there was something weird
about him being late. So I called him and he told me, "Yes, I'm in the bar"
– and the other bar was in front of the door of the cemetery. What a
coincidence! So we met and there was something obvious, but even the word
"obvious" is too strong.
It was... natural. We
had the same vision of Piaf. I loved his vision of this intimacy. From that
moment, we never spoke of the script or of the character. We never spoke of
the movie – we just made it. Olivier doesn't talk when he doesn't need to
but it's very relaxing when you understand someone just by looking at him.
He had no doubt about
me doing this role. It was more than confidence. It was not that I had no
doubt, or only [a little] doubt. It was just that I wanted to do this but I
wanted to start working [right away] because I knew that I would have to do
a lot of work to make something really good.
You have worked
with several very stylistically distinct directors – Ridley Scott and
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, for example. Olivier has a very natural style of
filmmaking. As an actress, what kind of style are you more comfortable with?
I like to work in
different kinds of universes. It's like; can you say what kind of human
being you prefer exactly? There are many personalities that you like. What I
like is a strong universe and imagination whether it be from Jean-Pierre
Jeunet, Tim Burton, or Olivier.
On the set, what are
the differences you felt as an actress?
It's always different
because all these directors are unique, and that's what I really like about
this job. You have the opportunity to be invited in to so many places and to
make your imagination fit a different kind of imagination each time. It's
Originally it was
difficult for Olivier to find financing for this film. He was told that no
one was interested in Piaf's life. And now the film has been seen by
millions of people. Many young people have gone to see it; what do you think
is the connection that new generations are making with Édith Piaf?
Besides the fact it's
Piaf, it's the story of an amazing woman who exposed her emotions all her
life, and who wrote or performed some of the most beautiful love songs of
all time. In her time, she was kind of punk rocker, you know, [very
rebellious and individual.] She was very modern. Even now, we have several
shows like American Idol in France and each year, young people, say
who are 18 or 20 years old, always sing Piaf because her songs are unique,
universal and immortal. Of course, the young generation didn't know about
her life but she had such an extreme power of love and emotions, it doesn't
matter that she was a woman was from the 1950s. Hers was a life so intense
that it can touch everyone.
Are you afraid of
being stuck with Piaf now?
I think those things
happen if you think about it, and if you feel it inside, it will come from
you – not from others. When I started doing movies, I started with very big
success in France where I play a kind of a bimbo, and I never believed that
I would be put in a box. If you don't have that inside of you, it won't
Piaf is such an
icon in France.
Yes, but it's not the
matter of the subject, it's the matter of what you do with her and what you
want to do [going forward]. I want to do a lot of other amazing journeys. I
am responsible for being in a box or not. I'm sure of this.
Are there other famous
women you would like to play?
Well, each time I am
asked that question, the first name that comes to mind is someone I can't do
– the Burmese lady, Aung Sang Suu Kyi [who is a nonviolent pro-democracy
activist and leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar]. Maybe
I can't do it but I think it's a movie that has to be done.
Would you produce it?
Yes, oh yes.
Are you interested in
directing as well?
In directing, yes. I
could express many things through directing. I'm not ready yet, but I guess
one day I will be.
Will that film be a
documentary or a fiction feature based on her life?
That's a good
question. I don't know how to answer that question because she's still alive
and still in prison in her own house. I think this story is terrible. It
really touched me. She couldn't visit her husband, [the Tibetan Buddhist
scholar] Dr. Michael Aris, who had cancer. It was horrible. I love that
woman. She's a strong, strong lady, fighting against the army.
If you could do
something now, maybe it would make a difference?
I don't know. So many
people sign things and try to make a difference. But I think, maybe, movies
can put this into your mind – so yes.
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