French singer Edith Piaf's rise from the slums of Paris to the concert halls of New York delivers all the usual star-is-born biopic conventions; writer-director Olivier Dahan isn't fooling anyone when he sometimes shows us these moments in nonchronological order. But as Edith, Marion Cotillard evades most of these clichés through some canny physical contortions — her tiny body grows and shrinks with each success or failure. When she's down and out, she trundles around like a stiff-shouldered old night manager of a fleabag hotel; at other times, she gallops and curses like a flinty moll in a gangster picture. At her peak, she's an alluring if unlikely icon whose recklessness and naiveté provide thin but tough insulation.
Curiously, Dahan touches on a fair amount of Piaf's personal tragedies but doesn't show their impact on her art. He thinks of Piaf as a French George Jones — a staggering musical talent whose strong, glorious voice was refined through professional instruction and discipline but uninflected by conscious creative thought. On stage, the most mournful songs about heartbreak, struggle, and loss seem to flow uninterrupted through Piaf without the slightest personal connection. With her shrugging blue eyes and jet-black bangs, Cotillard's earliest performances play out like those of a bitter, pint-sized understudy in a musical who stumbles into the glare of the footlights and dazzles the crowd; after she's done singing, she meets the applause with frightened, wide-eyed bewilderment. This discordant performance quickly disentangles Cotillard from the dull, overstuffed movie trying to smother her.
Opens Friday, June 29th, at Studio on the Square