The film is structured as a largely non-linear series of key events from the life of Édith Piaf. [note 3] The film begins with elements from her childhood, and at the end with the events prior to and surrounding her death, poignantly juxtaposed by a performance of her song, “Non, je ne regrette rien”.
The film opens with Édith as a small child in 1918. Her mother stands across the alley singing, busking for change. Édith’s mother writes to her child’s father, the acrobat, who is fighting in the trenches of World War I battlefields, informing him that she is leaving Édith with her mother so she can pursue the life of the artist. Her father returns to Paris and scoops up a sick Édith, then in turn leaves the child with his own mother, who is a madam of a brothel in Normandy. Now living as a child in a brothel, surrounded by the often brutal and demeaning business of prostitution, Édith is taken under the wing of the women there, especially Titine, a young troubled redhead who becomes emotionally attached to the little girl. Titine sings to, plays with, and tenderly cares for Édith through travails including an episode of keratitis-induced blindness.
Years later, Édith’s father returns for her. Despite anguished protests from both Titine and Édith, he takes the child away to join him as he works as a circus acrobat. As Édith is outside cleaning up after dinner one night, she watches a fire eater practicing, and in the flames sees an apparition of St Thérèse, who assures her that she will always be with her—a belief that she carries with her for the rest of her life.
When Édith is nine years old, her father leaves the circus after an argument with the manager and begins performing on the streets of Paris. During a lackluster performance of her father’s contortionist skills while Édith holds a hat for coins, a passerby asks if Édith is part of the show and, with prompting by her father to “do something” so the half-interested audience doesn’t leave, she spontaneously sings “La Marseillaise” with raw emotion, mesmerizing the street crowd.
Years later, a nightclub owner named Louis Leplée approaches Édith while she sings (and drinks) on the streets of Montmartre for supper money with her friend Mômone. He invites her to his club for an informal audition. Impressed, he hires her, after creating for diminutive Édith (1.47m in height) a stage surname of Piaf, a colloquialism for sparrow.
Soon, Leplée is shot dead, suspected by the police to be due to Édith’s connections to the mafia through the pimp who has demanded a large portion of her street singing earnings. When Édith next attempts a show at a low grade cabaret, she is jeered and shouted off the stage by a hostile crowd. Things go from bad to worse when Mômone is forcibly taken away to a convent for girls on orders from her mother. Desperate, Édith turns to Raymond Asso, a songwriter and accompanist. Through harsh means, he enlivens her performances by teaching her to gesture with her “great hands” while singing, and works with her on enunciation and other aspects of stage presence, including how to battle her initial fierce bouts of stage fright that almost prevent her from taking the stage for her first music hall performance.
While performing in New York City, Édith meets Marcel Cerdan, a fellow French national who is a boxer competing for the World Champion title. Though she quickly learns from him that he has a wife, who runs their pig farm while he’s away, Édith tells Mômone that she is falling in love with Marcel. The affair that ensues (it begins shortly after he beats Tony Zale and becomes World Middleweight Champion), while supposedly secret, results in “La Vie En Rose” being played for Marcel wherever he goes. The morning after Édith has persuaded Marcel to fly from Paris and join her in New York, she wakes up to his kiss. She joyfully hurries to get him coffee and her gift to him of a watch, while she mocks and exasperatedly shouts at her oddly subdued entourage as they listlessly stand around her apartment. They finally break the news to her that Marcel’s plane crashed. Édith hysterically searches for the ghost of Marcel that was lounging on her bed just a few moments before, crying out the name of her lost lover.
The narrative bookends these scenes from Édith’s middle life with repeated vignettes of an aged-looking Édith with frizzy red hair, being nursed and tended to. She spends much of her time sitting in a chair by the lakeside, and when she stands, she has the stooped posture and slowness of a much older person. Another set of fractured memories shows Édith with short curly hair, plastered to her face as though she is feverish, singing on stage and collapsing while she tries to sing, a moment when Édith herself realizes that her body is betraying her, when she is hosting a party at a Parisian bistro, and topples a bottle of champagne because of her developing arthritis, and to the severe morphine addiction that ultimately plays a large role in her demise, as she injects the drug with a young lover in her bedroom.
After her husband, Jacques Pills, persuades her to enter rehabilitation for her addiction, she travels to California with him, and the audience sees the sober but manic-by-nature Édith being driven around in a convertible, laughing, joking, teasing her compatriots and generally being the life of the party, until she takes the wheel and promptly drives into a Joshua tree. The hilarity is uninterrupted as Édith gets out and pretends to hitchhike—the whole episode appearing to be a metaphor for her lifelong frantic efforts to be happy and distracted by entertaining others, through all manner of disasters.
Years later, Piaf, now frail and hunched, squabbles with her entourage about whether or not she will be able to perform at the Olympia. No one but Édith thinks that she will be ready to attempt the feat, but she ultimately faces this reality herself. Then, a new songwriter and arranger shows up with a song, “Non, je ne regrette rien”, and Édith exclaims: “You’re marvelous! Exactly what I’ve been waiting for. It’s incredible. It’s me! That’s my life, it’s me.” She announces that she will indeed perform it at the Olympia.
Memories from prior to and during her last performance, when she collapses onstage, are interwoven through the film, foreshadowing the tragic end to a stellar but prematurely ended stage life. The memories appear to almost haunt Piaf. In one series, prior to what turns out to be her last performance, Édith is finally ready to go onstage after a series of delays, when she asks for the cross necklace that she always wears. As her staff rush away to get it, she sits and, in her quiet solitude, experiences more memories of her past, and after Édith puts on the retrieved cross and shuffles out onto the stage, the film presents more flashbacks as she is singing one of her signature songs, “Je ne regrette rien.”
She relives a sunny day on a beach with her knitting, when an older Édith with an obvious stoop graciously answers the simple and polite questions of an interviewer: what is her favorite color? (blue), her favorite food? (pot roast), and then more poignant questions that she also answers without hesitation, again showing the longings of her life. If you were to give advice to a woman, what would it be? “Love.” To a young girl? “Love.” To a child? “Love.”
As though he is carrying a swaddled infant, Louis easily carries Édith, tiny and wasted away at the age of 47, into her bedroom and tucks her into bed, while the subtitle reveals this is the last day of her life. She is afraid. She says she cannot remember things, but has a disjointed series of memories of the kind of small moments that somehow define all our lives more than the “big moments” do—scrambled and fragmentary as a dying person might experience—her mother commenting on her “wild eyes,” her father giving her a gift of a doll, and thoughts of her own dead child, Marcelle.
The film ends with Édith performing “Non, je ne regrette rien” at the Olympia.