BBC2: Sunday 18 October, 12.20am
From poor beginnings in Belleville and an upbringing in a Normandy brothel, a tiny guttersnipe with chronic health problems became the legendary French singer Edith Piaf, a sensation in café society and revered around the world for hits like Milord and her signature song, No Regrets.
Unrecognisable as Russell Crowe’s object of interest in A Good Year, Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard gives a remarkable gala performance as the frail waif with the resonant warble. And the Little Sparrow – her voice the soul of Paris – is scarily frail.
Like Anthony Hopkins in Nixon or Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for Capote, Marion bears little physical resemblance to her subject. Yet somehow she embodies the broken spirit of Piaf absolutely. Even in arthritic infirmity. It’s called acting.
(Although I couldn’t help wondering whether she’d had digital assistance, like Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins in Lord of the Rings.) With prestige writ large on every carefully composed frame, this scrapbook biopic concertinas back and forward through Piaf’s unsavoury life, a colour supplement movie that turns a sad song into a melodrama.
Not that Cotillard sings it. “They wouldn’t let me,” she said. “The only part when you hear my actual singing voice is in a scene where Edith is drunk and falling over tables. They let me do that bit.” The more regrettable decision by the film-makers was to ignore completely Piaf’s unpalatable wartime liaisons. A few regrets right there, you’d imagine