Biopic performances have always been right up the Academy's alley, especially in the last few years when we can't seem to have an Oscar year without such an Oscar winning performance. Still, when a relatively unknown French actress named Marion Cotillard took home an Academy Award for playing Édith Piaf, the legendary French singer over the legendary Julie Christie, viewers were nothing short of shocked. Marion Cotillard's Oscar win shows how the Academy can (and should always) work: Marion Cotillard won an Oscar simply on the merits of her work, which lots of Hollywood actors praised for its bravery. You might say that Marion campaigned for that Oscar, but after all, she got all the attention for her performance and in the end, it was always about her performance. Every once in a while, the Academy really gives the Oscar to what they consider the best performance of the year (I loved 2007 because all the important awards went to the right place, except for Original Screenplay).
Also, it really amazes me that people seem to dislike La vie en rose, which is, in my opinion, one of the three best films of 2007. It achieves everything that The Iron Lady was aiming to and does so effortlessly. Basically, it's about Édith Piaf remembering her life on her deathbed and that explains its odd structure. I feel that the movie should have taken home all the Oscar for the costumes and the win for the make-up was well-deserved. Actually, I would have nominated the film, the director and Emmanuelle Seigner who breaks your heart in her brief time on the scene as Titine, the prostitute who takes care of the five-year-old Edith.
Even if we ignore every merit of Marion's performance beside the technical part, it still remains a riveting and haunting performance, which rivals Meryl Streep's astonishing work as Margaret Thatcher. Marion transforms into this woman and embodies her so well that you refuse to believe that you're not looking at Édith Piaf. Even if this all sounds cheesy, you have to see to believe it. Marion Cotillard indeed completely disappear and instead we see a woman in different ages and conditions. The beautiful, young and tall Marion Cotillard becomes a broken-down, dying woman who looks 70 at the age of 47. Marion heartbreakingly shows the effects of Édith's self-destructive lifestyle on her body: her voice becomes scratchier, her body deforms and so on. I don't think I've seen self-destruction portrayed in such a harrowing, brutal way. But the fact is, that Marion disappears even in the scenes without the tons of make-up. Yes, the terrific make-up helped Marion a lot, but she uses it as a tool instead of letting it do the work for her.
And yes, if we're here, let me just adress all the comments about her lip-syncing as it's probably the most annoying thing what I hear about her. First of all, whether an actress sings herself or not is the choice of the director. We all know from Nine (and other movies) that Marion is a terrific singer who could have sung all the chansons of Piaf perfectly, but the aim of the movie was to draw an intimate portrait of Édith Piaf and not providing a showcase for Marion Cotillard and Piaf's voice was essential to that portrait. Marion's task was to make this voice her own by using her body and main task was to recreate the wonder of Édith Piaf who was much more compley than a great singing voice. During her performances (and in real life) she had a very special aura that made her such an enourmous, radiant presence, which is really indescribable. In a scene, Marion has to recreate this miracle on screen without Édith's voice and she (SURPRISE!) succeeds in every possible way because above all, she embodied the soul of Édith Piaf, which was indeed the key to her personality.
And here we come to the most important thing about her: the most brilliant thing about this performance is neither the technical part nor the emotions, it's really the way these two combine. First, Marion inhabited Édith's soul and spirit, which helped her recreate the phsyical aspects of the character and this is how she developed Édith's. And she did so with the movie standing in her way: since it ignored the chronological order of the events, Marion couldn't develop Édith gradually so she had to find some connections in the story and the events.
On this journey, we get to know many faces of Édith and actually, very few of them is likeable. However, Marion was somehow able to make us look up to Édith even when she's the bitchiest or the nastiest to everyone, because we are able to understand why and how her personality changed throughout the years. As a result, every part of her life is somehow different and the tragedies become heartbreaking for different reasons. As a young woman, the two most heartbreaking moments come right after each other: her menthor dies and her best friend is taken away from her as well. Her drunken meltdown over this (for me) is equal to the choice of Sophie.
My favorite moments in this film come when we get to see the romance between Édith and Marcel Cerdan (and you just cannot ignore the scene between Édith and Marlene Dietrich, which is indeed magical). Life is unusually balanced for Édith here and Marion excels also as a happy woman. For me, the real feat is that she was able to make the happiness of Édith just as haunting as her suffering and that's why the end of this story is one of the most painful scenes in movie history.
However, it's the end that most people will probably remember the most about this performance as it's quite simply cathartic. The moments of the interview on the beach, Édith crying on her deathbed or her final performance are nothing short of amazing. In about 15 minutes, Marion does what others couldn't do in 150 minutes. She shows the essence of Piaf's character without seeming preachy or cheesy. All the pieces of the puzzle fall into place and its effect is just cannot be described with words. Her "advice" for every person becomes so true and so effective, even in its simplicity. And Marion's delivery of that single word is just... :)
In the end, there isn't much to say about Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf. Cotillard is nothing short of amazing in every possible way an actress can be. Her performance has the effect of an earthquake: it makes you go through Édith's journey along with her and get to understand why this woman was such a brilliant artist. It's very unusual, extraordinary and unbelievable work from a truly great actress who gives probably the most brilliant portrayal of a real life person.
What do you think?