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The other day I saw a great movie with a friend and I want to write about it to recommend it to my readers. I'm having a hard time writing about it, however, and I don't know why. Maybe I'll figure out why by the time I finish this. Anyhow, the movie was about Edith Piaf, the great French singer who died in the 1960's, and was named (for non-French audiences) La Vie en Rose, meaning "life in pink" or "the rosy life," after the famous song written by Piaf herself. The French title of the movie is La Môme, meaning the "kid" (human, not goat), and is Parisian slang. Actually, the vernacular language of Paris was almost as much the subject of the movie as Piaf herself.
Perhaps I'm having a hard time writing about this because I'm a little embarrassed about how much I was moved by the film, which, incidentally was directed by Olivier Dahan, written by Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman, and starred Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf with Jil Aigrot as Piaf's singing voice. Full disclosure: I was infatuated with all things French since high school, when I studied the language and first heard one of La Môme Piaf's songs, Milord. I subsequently collected recordings of all of her music and spend two summers in France while a college student in the 1960's.
Piaf slowly worked her way up from the streets to cabarets to music halls to world fame. Some critics panned Dahan's film because the scenes of Piaf's life were taken way out of chronological order. The decision to do so was, in my view, what saved the film and made it so powerful. However, I knew Piaf's biography well before I saw it, and perhaps if I didn't know her story, I would have been lost or confused watching Dahan's production. The thing is, portrayed in strict chronological order, Piaf's life would be so much of a hard-luck-lady, rags-to-riches, little-poor-girl-makes-good stereotype that the tale would have been boring if not laughable.
Some things stood out as I watched the film: Piaf's loyalty to her "sister" and bosom companion Momône (that's right, La Môme and Momône), Piaf's courage about revealing her vulnerability without flaunting or exploiting it, and most of all, her brilliant articulation of the Paris street language in speech and in song.
In American terms, Piaf's lyrics most resemble country music, all about the grit to get through hard times, having been dealt a bad hand by life. But imagine if there were a kind of city country music that they sang in Brooklyn, with a Brooklyn accent. That would be a little closer to Piaf than country music. (Hey, I was born in Brooklyn and learned to talk there.) The urban blues (think Chicago), though also dealing with hard knocks, are very different from Piaf's songs, Blues songs are rarely love songs and most of the lyrics Piaf sings are obsessed with love. And finally, Piaf's music is quintessentially French and Parisian, almost untranslatable.
Now it's becoming clearer why it was so hard to write this. The movie revealed to me how much I still love France and her language, in spite of the the last decade of France's anti-Semitic street violence and her ruling elite's smug and petty anti-Americanism. The French gave us Americans the Statue of Liberty and the Marquis de Lafayette, who helped liberate us from Old World tyranny. And whether we Americans appreciate her or not, they also gave us Edith Piaf. As she sang, C'est payé, balayé, oublié; je me fous du passé ! (It's paid up, swept clean, forgotten; screw the past!) and maybe I can learn from that.
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