Filming a Champs Elysee moment

by Kaori Shoji

At first glance Olivier Dahan doesn’t come off as a filmmaker who would choose to make a biopic about Edith Piaf. He carved out a successful career in music videos, and is an avid aficionado of French hip-hop. Piaf’s music and what he listens to don’t quite gel. But perhaps this explains the particular allure of “La vie en rose.”

He remains clear-eyed and unobsessed. “I see her less as France’s national icon than a woman who made no distinction between her life and her art,” explains Dahan. “To me, that says everything there is to say about art. There should be no boundaries or separations. An artist’s life should be about his or her art, and nothing less. That’s difficult to do, but that was how Edith lived her life. . . . I admired that very much.”

Having said so, he admits that this is not a straightforward biopic, densely researched and unwavering from the facts, but a “stream of consciousness that belongs partly to Edith as I see her, partly to me.”

Dahan has been accused of deleting entire important episodes out of her life, namely her Resistance effort during World War II (she sang for the Nazis in Paris, posed for pictures with French POWs and used them for fake passports), but as he puts it: “I was never interested in sticking to facts and history only. I wanted to translate my fascination of her onto the screen.” Here’s Dahan on how he went about doing that:

How did you get hooked on Edith Piaf in the first place?

It was strange, almost magical. One afternoon I was walking around the Champs Elysee and, by chance, went into a bookshop. There I saw a very early photo of Edith Piaf, when she was 16 or 17. She struck me as being beautiful, not in any conventional way, but in manner and attitude. She was dressed like a punk rocker, and her pose, her expression, was so modern. Until then I had no real love for history or old photos, though I did like the [photographic] works of Brassai. But this was unlike any other image I had seen of Edith Piaf, and that was when I knew I wanted to make a film about her.

You have said you have no interest in history, yet the production values and period details are top-notch and very precise.

Well, I used to study art [he graduated from a Marseilles art college] and so have a great respect for art in whatever era. Besides, I think that if you’re going to make a film about someone then the least you can do is make the background convincing.”

What made you choose Marion Cotillard for the role?

Some years ago, I saw a film that she was in. In it, she was singing but it wasn’t her singing that got to me (in “La vie en rose,” Cotillard lip-syncs Piaf’s songs), but the way she could emotionalize and sing at the same time. She was very emotional and seemed vulnerable because of it. Later, when I thought of who to cast for Edith Piaf, her name was the first on my list. They were physically very different but she had something inside her that was similar to Edith.

The way we worked together was a little strange. I gave her a couple of books to read about Piaf, and then we got to work. No rehearsals, no readings. I just tried to put her on the same level of infatuation as me.

Do you think Edith Piaf could have survived the media and celebrity culture of today?

Yes, I do. In fact, Piaf reminds me of Madonna: how she creates this proximity between herself and the audience, how she was really good at deploying the media to her advantage and how she controlled what was said or wasn’t said about herself. She was never shy about using new technology either, and was aggressive about new recording equipment, new ways to get her work out to the public. Surely she would have survived, and she probably would have had a great time.