With his beret, soul patch and eyebrow piercing, 40-year-old Frenchman Olivier Dahan looks like a quintessential garret-based painter. It’s not far from the mark, he admits.
The art school graduate will concentrate for weeks on end on a single oil work.
“And it’s usually quite violent,” he says, “with a big canvas … And it’s just a red corpse, a human that’s all red in a garden of flowers. It’s … quite stark. And I will never give up painting, because I really need it. But to really paint seriously, you need a lot of time.”
Time he hasn’t had recently, thanks to “La Vie en Rose,” the biography of legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf, in theaters Friday, which he wrote and directed.
The film tells the tragic story of the Little Sparrow, from her brothel-raised childhood to her conquering of the world stage via signature ballads like “Padam … Padam,” “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” and the movie’s title track.
Actress Marion Cotillard — Russell Crowe’s love interest in “A Good Year” — is almost unrecognizable as the adult Piaf, with prosthetic teeth and a posture that grows increasingly stooped as the singer’s cancer and morphine addiction progress to an early death in 1963 at age 47.
“She was entranced,” Dahan says of his star. “Marion, during the shooting, even at the cantina, even at night and on weekends, would speak and walk exactly like Piaf. She really became enchanted with the role.”
Dahan’s last major assignment, after working in the documentary and music-video realms, was the Jean Reno action-adventure vehicle “Crimson Rivers 2: Angels Of The Apocalypse,” which he calls “a joke.”
The idea for “La Vie” came to him visually, hanging around a Paris bookstore one afternoon.
“I found a collection of photographs of Piaf, so it was not her music that led me to making the movie — just her photographs,” he says.
“And why her? I guess she was a good example of what an artist could — or should — be. And I’d wanted to make a movie about an artist for a long time.”
It’s not always a flattering portrait.
Dahan intentionally skipped over the war years, when Piaf was allied with the French Resistance, and only at the end hints at the “ghost” that haunted her since her teens.
Instead, he shows her decadence, and the destructive influence of her affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash.
“She was not really the same after that — something was broken, for sure,” Dahan says.