The most severe problem I had with Inception was not its specious dream-within-a-dream logic; it was its music. As with the last two Batman films, also directed by Christopher Nolan, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is relentless, swelling and keening and wailing behind every frame, hammering away at us without pause, obsessively eager to tell us how to feel. It isn’t that Zimmer’s score is, of itself, awful; there’s just far too much of it. The only redemption comes when our dreamers prepare to wake up, when Zimmer gives way to the simplicity of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, sung by the incomparable Édith Piaf.
I’ve been listening avidly to Piaf for just about a year now, having gotten hooked on to her music in an odd, roundabout way, via other movie soundtracks. She popped into my consciousness first in Something’s Gotta Give, in which Louis Armstrong covers her La Vie en Rose in such charming, defiantly American vein that he pronounces “en” as “on”. Last September, I watched Julie & Julia, and in the background of Julia Child’s mouthwatering life in Paris played the open-throated warbles of the French balladeer Charles Aznavour. From Aznavour to Piaf is but a hop and a skip and a tremulously held note, and so I borrowed La Vie en Rose, the magnificent Piaf biopic starring Marion Cotillard. Then, having digested the story of her rumpled life, I plunged into her music.
It is a peculiar quality of Piaf’s voice that even the jauntiest song seems to brim with latent pain. “I don’t regret anything at all,” she sings in Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, but she sounds rueful as she declares it; later in the same song, she declares that she doesn’t care about the past, but to listen to her sing is to believe otherwise. In my early Piaf days, when I was content to simply float along with her music, I was convinced that Comme Moi was an anthem of disconsolation. Later, hunting down translations of her lyrics, I found that Piaf was actually exulting in her “heart overwhelmed by joy” and having “the best time of her life”. I’ve never had to re-evaluate a song as radically as I did Comme Moi.
But how, then, to square the truth of the song with the truth of Piaf’s life? La Vie en Rose gives a fine account of it—of her abandonment by her parents, her childhood in a brothel, her alcoholism and morphine addiction, her promiscuity, the loss of her two-year-old daughter to meningitis and of her one true love to a plane crash. This is really La Vie en Douleur, the life of pain, tempered only by the transcendent moments when she was singing for an audience (indeed, in 1998, Aznavour told Time magazine: “Of course, it’s an act when you are on stage, but I am freer on stage, and she was freer than others”).
Perhaps, I was forced to conclude, Piaf lived not for her music but in her music. Perhaps in her life according to song, Piaf really had no regrets; perhaps she really did have the best time of her life, and she really was “happy, happy until death”. Singing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien was, for Piaf, not a way of returning to the real world, as in Inception, but of escaping it.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org