I had always enjoyed what I had heard of her music, but other than that and the fact that she pretty much defines the American conception of "chanteuse," I knew very little about her life.
What a hair-raising life it was! She appears to have suffered just about every disaster one can imagine, until her strength and health ran out at the age of forty-eight in 1963.
She was born in France in 1915, to a father who was at the front, and a mother who was a street singer, and who abandoned her to seek fortunes elsewhere. After the war and an infection of the corneas that left her temporarily blind, her father reclaimed her which put her back into the marginal life of a street performer. She was saved from a life of prostitution by Louis Leplee (played in the film by Gerard Depardieu) who gave her a job singing in his nightclub and gave her the name "the Sparrow" (Piaf) which she used the remainder of her life. Her career was almost nipped in the bud when Leplee was murdered in an apparent gangland shooting, but she was taken up by writer and poet Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe), who taught her much about stage presence, presentation, gesture, and diction, and who put her on the path to eventual international stardom.
This is a really amazing performance by Marion Cotillard, who plays Edith from her young and hungry twenties through her period of stardom, to her decline and death, and manages to look uncannily like Piaf's pictures. Equally important to the story is the voice of Jil Aigrot, who does a remarkable impersonation of Piaf's singing voice, manageing to distinguish between the unschooled Piaf and the more polished Piaf after Asso's training.
The movie story is told in a sequence of interleaved flashbacks, but it is not this that makes the movie sometimes hard to watch--it is the sheer amount of pain (much of it self-inflicted) that Piaf endures. Of course for dramatic purposes, the movie tends to focus on the hard times and the overall effect is rather harrowing. And of course, this effect is artistically consistent with Piaf's own lifelong artistic focus on the sad, the lonely and the despairing, which makes the film a fitting tribute.
(More on Piaf's life here: http://www.answers.com/topic/edith-piaf )
This film is very photographed, and the major actors are supported by what we have come to think of as the typical French cast: very skilled actors and interesting to look at in ways foreign to the Hollywood style. The subject matter, including drug use, makes this a movie for adults. In French, with English subtitles.