Lyrical Life


Olivier Dahan Captures Universal Appeal of

The celebrated Édith Piaf biopic “La Vie en Rose” opened the recent Filmfest DC, introduced by writer-director Olivier Dahan. Afterward, he recalled, “I wanted to hear live music.” So he visited Bohemian Caverns to hear some funk. The next day, he took the time to be interviewed by The Washington Diplomat.

“I wanted to make, for a long time, something about an artist. I fell upon a photo of Édith Piaf very young. She was not Édith Piaf [a stage name] yet. That photo was shot in the ’30s in the street. The photo was so far from the iconic image we had today from her. She was not in a black dress. She was like a bum in the street,” Dahan said.

“I was wondering myself, ‘Who’s going to play Édith Piaf?’ I was just thinking about Marion Cotillard. I didn’t know her, but I was sure she was the right actress to play the character. It was intuition, nothing more. No audition, nothing,” the director said of choosing his leading lady. “We just met in a café in Paris for one hour. She was late…. We started to talk, actually about some other subjects. A very short meeting: It confirmed for me she was the good one.

“The movie was quite expensive for a French budget. It wasn’t too easy to get the money. Don’t you think it’s too much for old people? There’s no audience. Young audiences won’t go there,” Dahan explained of the typical reaction he received. “When we did the first advance premiere in the whole country, we were very surprised by the young age of the main audience. There were theaters where there were 20-, 25-year-olds.”

Indeed, it was a hit with youth, including Dahan’s own children. “They liked it. I was surprised because this isn’t their kind of movie. They only listen to rock music. The older one was really touched by the movie.”

In fact, the movie has turned out to have universal appeal. “There’s not so much difference between audiences of different countries. The reaction of people when they go out of the screening is almost the same anywhere.”

Commenting on French film, Dahan said: “In the past, one of my favorite directors is Jean Renoir. I love a good part—most—of the movies of Jean-Luc Godard. These days, it’s quite different. I’m not like a fan of someone.

“I don’t know what to say about French cinema today. I try to go three times a week. That’s quite a lot for me. I don’t see much that’s good. A good French movie? No, I don’t remember one. I’ve seen a lot, but for me they’re no good…. Sometimes, there’s a good comedy.”

I mentioned that Francis Veber, director of “The Valet,” told me during a previous interview to advise Dahan: “Sometimes, it’s hard to get out of a hit. Be very careful about what you pick for the next project.”

Laughing, Dahan replied, “OK, I will. But sometimes it’s hard to get out of a flop as well.”

Dahan added: “I’ve done movies that have been a success. Some others, no. For me, it’s almost the same at the end. The important thing is to be comfortable with the film once you’ve just finished. The feeling of, I’ve accomplished something…. After that, if the audience is in the theater, great. If they are not, what can you do?”

Near the end of “La Vie en Rose,” a journalist interviews a frail, aged Piaf on the beach. I’d intended to ask Dahan the same questions, but I forgot the notebook in which I’d written the questions. Dahan remarked, “I don’t remember, either.” Except: “My favorite color is blue.” Like Piaf.

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.