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Like a sudden thirst, you can get a creative spark anywhere, anytime; for Olivier Dahan it came with a photo of a young Edith Piaf, glanced when flicking through a book in a bookstore. He sent a text message to a producer …. Three years and five months later his film of her life opened the Sydney Film Festival.

JANUARY 22, 2004, 3.46 PM: Writer-director Olivier Dahan sends a text message to his friend and producer Alain Goldman: "I wanted to make a film about what drives an artist. I was in a bookstore flicking through a book about Piaf when the idea suddenly came to me. I immediately sent a text-message to Alain Goldman. Five minutes later, he gave me the green-light. He was right with me from the get-go. In fact, he got back to me so fast, I wondered for a moment what I'd got myself into!"

Alain Goldman: "I was keen to work with Olivier again. We're very close, professionally and personally, but I didn't have anything lined up with him. Then, on January 22, 2004, at 3:46 pm, I received a text-message from him, which read, "A movie about music and love. A tragic, romantic blockbuster. French subject matter, international appeal. A major film about Piaf." That sums up the movie perfectly. I kept that message, that initial impulse, as a reference. During the writing process, and even further down the line, if we strayed away from it, we could go back to that basic precept. I immediately sensed that we would make the movie, that it would probably open up perspectives and that Olivier's text-message would remind us that we had believed."

"no barrier between her life and her art"

Olivier Dahan: "For me, Piaf is the perfect example of someone who places no barrier between her life and her art. The fusion between your existence and work is the very foundation of a true artist. Like everybody else in France, I knew some of her songs and something about her life, but no more than that. She was the ideal "in" for me to talk about what concerns me. The spark came when I saw a photo of her, as a young woman, walking in the street with her friend Momone. Few people have ever seen what she looked like so young. The prevailing image of her is from the 50s and 60s – the frail icon in the black dress. That photo gave me a glimpse of somebody completely different, who wasn't yet Edith Piaf and who intrigued me. I pictured a kind of bridge between the prevailing image and that photo of an uncut diamond."

Alain Goldman: "Filming a celebrated life is always a long process. Vatel and 1492 taught me that it takes roughly a year to research and digest all the necessary information, and find an interesting narrative form. At first, Olivier, who is very visual and intuitive, didn't want to write the film. I had to convince him to do it. I needed his precision, his grasp of what is essential. I knew he'd have some very personal things to say in the film – things which he alone could express. It was his unique vision of Piaf's life that interested me."

Olivier Dahan: "I read everything ever written about her, published or not, from her lifetime to the present day. At the same time, I started to write, combining what stood out for me in my reading and what I wanted to express beyond the question of Piaf's life. I think I have a good idea of what an artist feels – whether it's Piaf or any other. Apprehension, anxiety, desire... I didn't want to make a bio-pic, but I did want everything that was in the movie to be real. It's just that, at certain points, especially concerning her childhood, which she rarely discussed, I extrapolated, using the few elements at my disposal."

Alain Goldman: "As the script took shape, I saw how Piaf's life was even more dramatic than one of her songs - a tragedy with a little bit of everything! Abandoned and raised in a brothel; blind, briefly, in childhood; on the road with her father, before winding up in the Pigalle district of Paris at the prey of a pimp. And just when her career takes off, she is accused of murder and has to start back at the bottom. The greatest novelist couldn't have dreamed up a better story. Piaf is one of those rare performers with universal appeal – men, women, young, not so young... And not because she appeals to baser instincts. She elevates us. Her voice fascinates people across social and cultural barriers. Everybody can identify with her. Piaf is an icon, a beacon and we need her more than ever today. Her unique stature goes far beyond our borders. That's why the film has brought interest from so many countries, including English-speaking territories that often remain impervious to French movies."

Olivier Dahan: "During my research, I accumulated lots of facts and, above all, the confirmation of my initial intuition. Piaf is undeniably the archetype of an artist. Generally, when artists begin to self-destruct, their art regresses. In that sense, Piaf is an exception. As her body waned, her art rose higher, became purer. That's pretty rare. Even in decline, everything was there in her voice and her will to sing and perform as never before. She never gave up. I don't believe in the tormented artist. Like everybody else, Piaf clearly had happy times, even when you would least expect. I don't agree that being unhappy is a prerequisite to being a great artist, or even an artist. On the contrary, you have to work at not being unhappy. In many biographies, the subject's childhood is skimmed over. Yet, those early years condition the rest of our lives. The key often lies in childhood.

"her honesty and acute judgment"

Almost every scene we shot, including the dialogue, comes from the first draft. I reworked the structure of the script, but not the content. The opening scene is exactly as I began the script. In her writing and speech, Piaf expressed herself very well. I used her words for the dialogue. She went straight to the point without any verbiage. I read her correspondence, including the unpublished letters, and I was struck by the quality of her writing, her honesty and acute judgment.

"Despite the fact that she was hugely famous, for me, the subject of the film was very intimate because I put into the film exactly what I wanted to say. I never felt overwhelmed by her stature. I wanted to paint a portrait. Telling her life-story didn't interest me per se. The events I show help to build up the portrait. I always tried to be truthful, respectful, connecting with her, without idealizing her. She never idealized herself or her art. When I was writing, I made a point of not meeting anybody who had known her personally. One day, Ginou Richer, who was Piaf's best friend for twenty years, got in touch. I sent her the script, thinking that this was the real test. She called me to say that I wasn't wrong about the character. I saw the whole process as a kind of dig, piecing something together without knowing whether the result would be exactly how it was. Even so, my approach wasn't that of an archaeologist but – I hope – that of an artist concerned not to misrepresent people and events. I wanted to express things about the character that were true and exact, in my own way, without betraying her or having to choose between the two approaches. All that I wanted to express freely, through her or with her, had to come out of her real life."

Published July 12, 2007

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Australian release: July 12, 2007
Written & directed by Olivier Dahan
After a troubled childhood, Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) begins singing for money in the streets of Pigalle with her best friend Mômone (Sylvie Testud), where she is discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Gérard Dépardieu). Giving her the nickname Little Sparrow (La Môme Piaf), he also introduces her to all the right people including songwriter Marguerite Monnot (Marie-Armelle Deguy) and manager Louis Barrier (Pascal Greggory). Her love affair with married boxing champ Marcel Cedan (Jean-Pierre Martins) ends in tragedy and despite constant ill-health and a battle with booze and drugs, Piaf’s unique voice and waif-like persona make her a star.

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