For the past few days I’ve been belting this French song whenever I feel the slightest neurosis coming on. It’s very empowering—just when I feel myself slipping into that familiar Black Hole of self-judgment and recrimination, the song’s defiant lyrics (“No, I Regret Nothing!”) provide a slingshot back to the surface and a resounding counterpoint to the overwhelming feelings of regret that dog me whenever I’m feeling down. Regrets about paths not taken, goals not achieved, and the tiresome list of fear-based behaviors that have wreaked havoc in my life. I’ve always appreciated this provocative song, but the reason it’s back in my head this week is because Kendall and I just saw the brilliant new film about Edith Piaf, the French singer who became a national icon after her tragic death at the age of 47. Piaf recorded “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” in 1960, three years before she died. It became a kind of personal anthem for the star, whose hardscrabble life provided no shortage of misery and pain.
Have you noticed that whenever public figures talk about the difficult times in their lives, they invariably mention that despite all of the anguish they may have experienced, they have no absolutely no regrets because it is those very difficulties that made them who they are today? This is a very audience-pleasing sentiment, but it’s also part of a carefully crafted dance between celebrities and the public. We love hearing that our idols have no regrets about their own painful pasts provided they express remorse for any pain they may have inflicted on others (as if the two are ever that clearly delineated). So while you won’t see Hitler getting a round of applause on Oprah for declaring that he doesn’t regret his past actions, you’d definitely hear tumultuous approval for the former hooker/drug addict/car thief who finally got her life together and is now insisting that she is a stronger, better person because of her personal travails.
How many interviews have you seen that go into explicit detail about someone’s wretched past and then conclude with that person saying “I wouldn’t change a single thing.” It’s such a popular stance that it’s almost shocking to hear someone say that they DO have regrets about past decisions. When that happens on a talk show, the audience will usually let out with some kind of “Awwwww” that says, “No, you shouldn’t feel that way, you have nothing to apologize for, you are perfect just as you are!” Have we become such a Self-Help/New Age generation that any expression of guilt or remorse is seen as a character flaw instead of a positive step towards recovery? I DO have regrets about my past, plenty of them, but I realize now that the trick is to use these regrets in a constructive way and not just as a reason to gang up on myself as a worthless loser and thus avoid doing the work that is necessary to get out of that self-obsessed spiral of pain.
I’m still working through this “regret” stuff. Just like guilt, I see that I need to sort through my regrets and decide which ones require more thinking and which ones really do provide insights into areas I’d like to work on. When I look at my high school and college years, for example, and remember how I boxed myself off from a lot of experiences and social interaction because I was so terrified of rejection or being less than perfect, I regret not taking advantage of the opportunities that were available to me. It’s not that I spend a lot of time ruminating about these years, but it is helpful to take those feelings and look at ways in which I still try to fly under the radar, still avoid taking certain risks because of fear of failure, and still hesitate to engage with others because I’m scared of rejection. I remember the Holocaust survivor mother of a good friend of mine who used to insist that “Guilt is a virtue!” We wanted to put that line on a T-shirt, we thought it was so funny and crazy, and to be honest, this woman did mean it in the most dysfunctional Jewish way possible. But on the other hand, isn’t our current disdain for any expression of guilt or regret just as insane?
The problem for people like me is that we tend to stave off all feelings of regret for so long, refusing to look at these so-called “negative” feelings, that we eventually build up an internal avalanche that overtakes us to such an extent that we reject them all lest we suffocate from their intensity. So instead of being able to calmly look at feelings that might serve as helpful tools for self-discovery and growth, we run screaming in the other direction and continue to waffle between the extremes of regretting nothing and regretting EVERYTHING without discrimination. My warbling of Piaf’s song helps rescue me from that avalanche by reminding me that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I have no doubt that Edith Piaf ‘s haunting rendition of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” was so powerful precisely because she also struggled between that place of having total regret for every decision she made in her life and that part of her that understood how many of her unique qualities and strengths were borne from this adversity.
And speaking of the beloved “little sparrow,” I strongly urge you to go out TODAY and see this amazing new film about Edith Piaf, even if you don’t particularly care for her music or have never heard of her. I could rattle off a list of performances by actresses that I think are extraordinary, but it’s only about once every decade or so that you have a chance to see someone take on a role with such skill and passion that it literally takes your breath away. I remember feeling that way about Meryl Streep’s 1982 performance in “Sophie’s Choice” and now, 25 years later, I definitely feel it about Marion Cotillard’s channeling of Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” Though way more beautiful than the diminutive French singer, Cotillard transforms herself completely in this film and undergoes the most realistic, brutal aging of a character that I’ve seen since Robert De Niro nearly killed himself to play Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull.” Cotillard plays Piaf from her teens to her death in her late 40s. It’s hard to believe that Edith Piaf died at the age I am now, the excesses of her life left her looking more like she was in her late 70s.
One of the things I love about “La Vie en Rose” is that it doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence as so many Americans film do. The story is told in a non-linear way without a lot of explanation, with constant switches to various years in Piaf’s life, from her early childhood when she was abandoned by her alcoholic mother and the years she spent living in her paternal grandmother’s brothel, to her adolescent life on the streets with her circus performer father and the desperate years on her own before her great success (and subsequent agonies) as a troubled superstar. The scenes are organized more thematically than chronologically, further emphasizing Cotillard’s uncanny ability to portray Piaf’s vulnerabilities and talents over a thirty-year period. I can’t remember the last time I saw Kendall moved to tears while watching a modern movie (she tends to be far more entranced by the actresses of the 1930s and 40s) so I was startled to hear her sobbing during Cotillard's rendition of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” at the end of the film.
This is a painful, funny, inspiring, and ultimately heart-breaking look at the life of this incredible woman. Obviously some dramatic liberties were taken, some bordering on the cliché. I loved Catherine Allegret’s take on Edith’s hardened brothel-running grandmama. Allegret looks exactly like her mother, famed actress Simone Signoret, and the role is a classic Signoret turn. Piaf was a major figure in the life of Signoret’s second husband, Yves Montand—as mentor and lover—but Montand is not seen in the film and is only mentioned in passing. I assume the decision was made to leave out such well known stars whose lives intertwined with Piaf for fear of audience rebellion at actors who looked too different from these iconic performers. Gerard Depardieu shows up briefly as one of Piaf’s early champions. Depardieu is great, as always, but every time I see him appear out of the blue like this, I wonder if it’s possible for a French film to get a distribution deal in the U.S. without his presence. Oh well, at least we are spared Audrey Tatou in the lead role. Nothing against the impish star of “Amelie” (who will next be seen as Coco Chanel in a big-budget extravaganza), but for a while she seemed to be the only French actress allowed on American screens. I really enjoyed Emmanuelle Seigner as Titine, the fictional whore with a heart of gold who has a big impact on young Edith’s life. I once sat behind Seigner and her husband Roman Polanski in a Paris movie theatre. Don’t ask me what the film was because I spent the whole two hours watching Seigner and Polanski carrying on right in front of me in a scene worthy of one of Polanski’s more ribald films.
Sophia Loren is the only actress ever to win an Academy Award for a leading performance in a foreign language film (for “Two Women” in 1961). Roberto Benigni is the sole actor to get such an honor (for 1998’s “Life Is Beautiful”) but don’t get me started on him, I am not a Benigni fan. If Marion Cotillard doesn’t join this group and win the Best Actress Oscar next year, I will personally chain myself to the Academy headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard and demand justice.
Go see this film. You won’t regret it. And to get you in the mood, here’s the real Piaf singing my new theme song: