posted on January 14, 2008 07:20
Halfway down the Champs-Elysées there's a huge statue of Charles de Gaulle. It captures the General in his glorious moment as he strode down the grand old boulevard on 26 August 1945, the symbolic act which confirmed the liberation of Paris from the Nazi forces. On the statue's plinth are engraved his famous words from that day: "Paris! Paris outragée! Paris brisée! Paris martyrisée! Mais Paris libérée!" (Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyrised! But Paris free!). It's an evocative blend of suffering and triumph, of tragic history and glorious destiny - and it's almost impossible to read those words without hearing in your mind's ear the opening bars of 'Je Ne Regrette Rien' as sung by Edith Piaf. Like de Gaulle, Piaf's singing more than symbolises France - it seems to embody it.
No doubt there'll be resurgent interest in Piaf now, thanks to Marion Cotillard's Golden Globe-winning portrayal of her in 'La Vie En Rose'. Strangely, that's not the film's title in France - here it's called 'La Mome', which means anything from 'the kid' to 'the chick' to 'the sweetheart'.
Cynics may sneer that Piaf's melodramatic life makes for lazy cinema; just point the camera at her squalid upbringing, triumphant success, tragic romance with the ill-fated Marcel Cernan (and his own glamorous world of '50s middleweight boxing) and the last years of sad decline, and the story will tell itself. And isn't Hollywood currently obsessed with rewarding biopic roles that are often just glorified impersonations? With beautiful actresses making themselves up as unglamorous, long-suffering heroines? Despite all that, Cotillard is a fine actress and fully deserves international recognition.
Piaf certainly merits lasting worldwide fame - and her singing is matched by her acting. That is to say, few other singers bring such dramatic range and emotional strength to their performances - and (even more rare) Piaf did it in both English and French with nothing lost in translation. Her most famous international songs are 'Je Ne Regrette Rien/No Regrets' and 'La Vie En Rose', but surely her greatest performance is 'Hymne A L'Amour' (sometimes known in English as 'If You Love Me' or 'Hymn To Love'). It begins with the singer reserved and hesitant with emotion, then moves into a middle section of self-questioning and fearful uncertainty, before ending with a powerful declaration of love that's as triumphant as de Gaulle's march down the Champs-Elysées.
Wouldn't it be strange if Cotillard's Piaf were to battle with Cate Blanchett's Dylan for an Oscar? Should Cate's Bob-job beat out Piaf, we can just console ourselves that there are greater prizes than shiny baubles. Here's 'Hymne A L'Amour' - if you're watching in your workplace, now would be a good time to pretend that you've got dust in your eye: