Some 30 years ago, I was given a novel by the English author Charles Palliser called The Quincunx. The good friend who gave me the book claimed that it was, hands down, her favorite novel of all time. Back then, when someone gave me a book – especially with such a glowing endorsement – I generally read it. And I did indeed read The Quincunx.
Alas, for this insensitive lout, The Quincunx was a dreary, irksome, endless book written in the style of an early Victorian novel, in which an exceptionally unlucky protagonist lurches from one catastrophe to the next across its near 800-page length. In search of a codicil to a will that would presumably reverse his misfortunes, the dude takes more hard shots to the chin than Chuck Wepner (born 1939) did in his fight with Sonny Liston. (Wepner was not nicknamed “the Bayonne Bleeder” for nothing; after his fight with Liston, 72 stitches were required to put his face back together.)
But, believe it or not, The Quincunx was not the most harrowing tale of seemingly nonstop calamities with which I was familiar, because even back then, I knew something of the life of Édith Piaf. The cliché applies: no one could have made up the story of Piaf’s life, not Charles Palliser and not even the great master of the Victorian disaster novel, Charles Dickens himself.
A disclaimer up front: there’s no way a 2860-word blog nor a two-hour and twenty-minute movie can possibly cover even the notable points – high and low – of Piaf’s singular life.
Here’s how I have structured this post. We begin with a few words about the prescribed Piaf bio-pic, La Vie en Rose. I then list, in chronological order and with a minimum of narrative fuss, the principal events of her life. Finally, we will explore the beginnings of Piaf’s singing career using clips from the La Vie en Rose.
La Vie en Rose
The New York Times critic Stephen Holden nailed it on the head when he wrote that Marion Cotillard’s performance as Édith Piaf is:
“The most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another ever encountered in a film.”
No disagreement from me; Cotillard’s performance is one for the ages. As is her physical transformation: from the 5’7” beauty that is Cotillard in real life into the nervous, twitchy, 4’10” “sparrow” that was Piaf. (Born Édith Giovanna Gassion, Piaf was given the stage name La Môme Piaf – Parisian slang for “The Little Sparrow” – in 1935 by the man who “discovered” her, the nightclub owner Louis Leplée.)
By the end of her life at the age of 47, Piaf – bent and broken, weighing some 66 pounds – hardly looked a day under 80. In playing Piaf at the end, Cotillard’s physical transformation is astonishing.
The movie is not chronological, but dances back and forth through Piaf’s life. A little knowledge of the actual chronology of Édith Piaf’s life goes a long way towards helping to follow the movie so, as promised, here is just such a chronology.…Become a Patron!