The singer Edith Piaf (1915-1963) was a unique soul, as beloved in France as much as, say, Elvis Presley was in the U.S. She had an unusual stage presence, almost mousy and withdrawn, but forceful in her voice; the effect was one of breaking out of her shell, and audiences connected with her. Her haunting voice is probably familiar to many Americans, as her songs continue to turn up as atmosphere in American movies, everything from Bull Durham (1988) to Saving Private Ryan (1998), Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2003) to 2005's Valiant. She appeared in person in a few movies as well, notably Jean Renoir's French Cancan (1954). My favorite Edith Piaf moment comes in Babe: Pig in the City (1998), when Babe accidentally destroys Mickey Rooney's magic show, setting the stage aflame in slow motion to the tune of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien."
Like many artists who have touched the souls of millions, Piaf probably deserves a good movie about her life, and someone worthy of playing her. The latter has stepped up, in the form of actress Marion Cotillard, in the new film La Vie en rose. Cotillard has thus far appeared without much fanfare in Tim Burton's Big Fish (2003), Luc Besson's Taxi films, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement (2004) and Ridley Scott's A Good Year (2006). But here she gives a vigorous, demanding performance that runs the gamut. She plays a teenager all the way up to Piaf's decrepit mid-40s (during which she looked like she was in her 70s). She captures Piaf's rawness and awkwardness, and refines it as time passes. She doesn't sing (Jil Aigrot provides the singing voice) but she throws her words to the rafters as if she were singing. Unless I miss my guess, the Academy will remember this performance come next February.