Dahan jumps wildly among Piaf's childhood, adolescence and death, pausing long enough in recounting her career to give viewers a sense of how important she was to France and the world. Bo found these chronological leaps charming; they drove Luke crazy. Here's an (edited) e-mail debate we had about it.
Luke: The film had a seriously beautiful performance from Marion Cotillard as Piaf, but I almost missed it because I was so annoyed by the time jumps. With one notable exception, they were contrived and muddied the understanding of Piaf's life.
Bo: What I don't get is why you and half the reviewers question the time-shifting. Sure, we jump from Piaf's concert successes of the 1950s, back to when she was abandoned by her parents in 1918, then on to her sidewalk singing in the '30s and her premature, morphine-induced death in 1963. But the rapid juxtapositions have payoffs: Piaf's quick exit while being jeered at in a rundown cabaret in the '30s becomes an offstage exit 20 years later, when her diva arrogance became a bigger problem than any unappreciative fans. And Dahan knows how to make grief-filled scenes dream-like. In one sequence, an important person in Piaf's life is both present and absent -- and then, when the unthinkable happens, Piaf wanders through corridors, only to emerge, dreamily, onto one of her concert stages. It's a precise visual equivalent for how experiences shape songs' emotional delivery. Why be a slave to chronology?
Luke: The jumping around hindered the narrative, obscuring the reality of her life. Dahan took a beautiful story and festooned it with all these jumps, trying to create metaphysical connections between past and present, I guess, but none of those connections clicked, except for the final scenes linking her death with her final performance.
Which brings up another point: Whoever did the subtitles didn't translate any song except that final performance of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" ("No, I regret nothing"). The effect of that was to suggest that Piaf didn't feel any connection with the songs she was singing except that one. It's as if the performances were less about artistry than earning the love of the audience. That ties her victimization in the brothels to her later life better than any narrative flash that Dahan tries. But Cotillard still gives a great performance -- frail and innocent in some ways, hopelessly debauched in others.
Bo: We can agree there. With a hangdog look under bobbed hair and her moon eyes rimmed with kohl, Cotillard captures Piaf's disbelief in good fortune and her fear of success. At her first nightclub singing triumph, Cotillard's meekness makes it clear that Piaf was afraid of success and slow to break out of her old self-destructive ways. And Cotillard ages in the role brilliantly. As a hunched-over crone, wobbly on her feet and balding, she's a physical wreck from years of self-abuse. Her rages and insults don't make her likable. But you sense that she left it all out on life's playing field. What do we have to use up, as she says, other than our own lives? Cotillard's performance is better than
the movie it's in.
Luke: I absolutely agree with that.