The tragic life of the French singer Édith Piaf touches at the heart of the struggles over national identity in France.
Today Piaf has been embraced as a national icon – yet she was vilified by the establishment during her life. These contradictions are explored in La Vie En Rose, a film of Piaf’s life starring Marion Cotillard.
Piaf was born in 1915 in Belleville, a working class neighbourhood of Paris with a long history of militancy. The district was one of the strongholds of the left during the 1848 revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871.
Today Belleville remains a bastion of support for the Communist Party and the revolutionary left. In romanticised portayals of Paris it appears as a cut-throat neighbourhood and home of the “guinguettes” – popular cabarets and dance halls.
Since the 1870s the Belleville area drew in waves of immigrants. They created a fusion of musical styles that became known as “chanson français”.
It was considered “low art” by the French establishment – the crude music of the streets. Yet Piaf captured and celebrated the atmosphere of the guinguettes with songs such as “Mon Apéro” and “La Foule”, about two strangers who fall in love and then lose each other in a crowd of dancers.
Piaf’s mother was part Italian and her father was of North African decent. Legend has it she was born under a streetlight, raised first by her Moroccan grandmother and then by her maternal grandmother, who ran a brothel.
Conjunctivitis and ear infections left her blind and deaf for most of her childhood – common ailments for poverty stricken French children in the 1920s and 1930s, who were lucky to live past their fifth birthday.
Piaf was discovered while busking in a Paris street and became a popular act on the cabaret circuit. She sang songs of “a shadow in the street” – the poor waifs that lived on the edge of hunger – and refused to abandon the Parisian working class slang that she would make famous.
For most of her life she was hounded by the French establishment. The police accused her of murdering Louis Leplée, the man who discovered her, played in the film by Gérard Depardieu.
Charges against her were eventually dropped, but the press kept up their attacks – even accusing her of negligence after the death of her two year old daughter from meningitis.
This was by no means the only tragedy in Piaf’s life. Her lover, Marcel Cerdan, a world champion boxer, died in an air crash in 1947, and Piaf became addicted to morphine after a car accident in 1956. She died of cancer at 47.
The Catholic church refused to perform a eulogy for her funeral. But all of Paris came to a halt when her coffin was carried through the streets.
By the 1950s chanson français was becoming more openly radical. A group of singers around Boris Vian directly challenged conservative morality with songs that called for open expressions of love. Vian released a song in 1954 called “Le Déserteur” that called on French troops not to serve in Algeria and Vietnam.
The song that made Piaf internationally famous was “La Vie En Rose”, released as Paris was liberated from German occupation. The song, about rediscovered love, spoke of hope for the millions emerging out of the horrors of war.
Piaf’s most powerful song “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” was a rebuke to the right wing moralists who constantly denounced her as immoral. In what can be the most moving tribute to the genre, it was remixed and played by Arab DJs during the riots that swept France in the 1990s.
The film La Vie En Rose has received mixed reviews in the press. It suffers from focusing in on Piaf’s personal life and losing sight of how wider French society was growing increasingly restless – and how this was expressed in the musical tradition of chanson.
But these problems are more than compensated for by the glorious soundtrack. Filmmaker Olivier Dahan specially remastered Piaf’s songs, since he found it was impossible for anyone to replicate her voice.
It’s well worth a cinema ticket just to hear Piaf’s extraordinary singing – and to marvel at Marion Cotillard’s remarkable portrayal of her remarkable life.