American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
She was the daughter of a street singer and a circus acrobat. She was dumped by her mother with her father, who dumped her with his mother, who ran a brothel. In childhood, diseases rendered her temporarily blind and deaf. She claimed she was cured by St. Therese, whose shrine the prostitutes took her to. One of the prostitutes adopted her, until her father returned, snatched her away, and put her to work in his act. From her mother and the prostitute she heard many songs, and one day when his sidewalk act was doing badly, her father commanded her, "Do something." She sang "La Marseilles." And Edith Piaf was born.
Piaf. The French word for "sparrow." She was named by her first impresario, Louis Leplee. He was found shot dead not long after -- possibly by a pimp who considered her his property. She stood 4 feet, 8 inches tall, and so became "the Little Sparrow." She was the most famous and beloved French singer of her time -- of the century, in fact -- and her lovers included Yves Montand (who she discovered) and the middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan. She drank too much, all the time. She became addicted to morphine, and required ten injections a day. She grew old and prematurely stooped, and died at 47.
Olivier Dahan's "La Vie en Rose," one of the best biopics I've seen, tells Piaf's life story through the extraordinary performance of Marion Cotillard, who looks like the singer. The title, which translates loosely as "life through rose-colored glasses," is from one of Piaf's most famous songs, which she wrote herself. She is known for countless other songs perhaps most poignantly for "Non je ne regrette rien" ("No, I regret nothing"), which is seen in the film as her final song; if it wasn't, it should have been.
How do you tell a life story to chaotic, jumbled and open to chance as Piaf's? Her life did not have an arc but a trajectory. Joy and tragedy seemed simultaneous. Her loves were heartfelt but doomed; after she begged the boxer Cerdan to fly to her in New York, he was killed in the crash of his flight from Paris. Her stage triumphs alternated with her stage collapses. If her life resembled in some ways Judy Garland's, there is this difference: Garland lived for the adulation of the audience, and Piaf lived to do her duty as a singer. From her earliest days, from the prostitutes, her father and her managers, she learned that when you're paid, you perform.