- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2007

It wasn’t the singular sound of Edith Piaf’s voice that led French director Olivier Dahan to make a film about the singer. It was her singular look. “I wasn’t a fan of her music,” Mr. Dahan admits on a recent stop in the District to promote “La Vie en Rose” (titled “La Mome” in his homeland) opening in theaters today. “I don’t like the word fan, anyway. I’m still not a fan.”

However, on browsing through a book of photographs, he was struck by a youthful picture of the Parisian singer, whose famous songs, besides the title of the film, include “Hymne a L’Amour,” “Milord” and “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

The diminutive Miss Piaf wasn’t your typical cabaret bombshell: She had a slight stoop and some inelegant mannerisms. Doe-eyed actress Marion Cotillard (“A Very Long Engagement” and “A Good Year”) completely embodies the legendary singer in “La Vie en Rose,” playing her from the age of 16 to her death in 1963 at 47 (but looking decades older after struggles with cancer and morphine addiction).

Miss Cotillard plays her as a shy street urchin onstage but a grand diva off. From the time Mr. Dahan began writing the script, the actress was the only one he had in mind for the role, but she didn’t try to replicate too much magic. The distinctive voice you hear singing those classic songs is that of Miss Piaf herself; a few songs sung by a pre-professional Piaf are voiced by singer Jil Aigrot. (During perhaps the most important point in Miss Piaf’s singing career, we hear nothing: Miss Cotillard lip-syncs to silence, letting the viewer imagine this moment in music history for himself.)

Mr. Dahan is no stranger to putting music on film. He has directed music videos for such artists as the Cranberries, but he says interacting with actors on a film set is “totally different” from working on a video.

His film also is totally different from the typical biopic. The film follows Miss Piaf from childhood to death — but not necessarily in that order. With frequent flashbacks, the film seems to be on two tracks, one charting the singer’s rise, the other her fall.

“I wanted something with a lot of emotional transition, not just factual transition,” Mr. Dahan says of his approach. “Very quickly it appeared to me that if it was just chronological, I would miss something.” He adds that though he was more interested in the emotions than the facts, he did verify all those facts while he was writing the script.

“I didn’t want to make a biography, anyway, because there are already a lot of biographies,” Mr. Dahan explains. “I wanted to make a portrait.”

That meant leaving out some major details from Miss Piaf’s life. Though her romance with married boxer Marcel Cerdan, who tragically died in a plane crash in 1949, is explored, her two husbands are barely seen. First she’s single, then, all of a sudden, she’s married. Her important work with the French Resistance is left out, too.

“I just put in the movie just what I wanted to talk about. I was very selfish,” Mr. Dahan says with a laugh. “In a two-hour-long movie, you cannot really put everything in anyway.” (Point taken, although the movie is a generous 140 minutes.)

Some may object, but few in France seem to have done so. “The reaction of the press and the reaction of the audience is really very warm and very huge,” Mr. Dahan says. “In France, it’s a huge success.”

How will the film go over in America? Miss Piaf played Carnegie Hall twice and appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” eight times, but she’s not so well known here as in her homeland.

“I don’t know because I wasn’t expecting anything from France,” Mr. Dahan says philosophically. “When I do a movie, I have no expectations except to finish the movie and to be comfortable with it.”

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