BERLIN — Berlin's annual film festival opened Thursday with a portrait of the turbulent story of Edith Piaf -- part of a strong French contingent at this year's event.
Olivier Dahan's "La Vie en Rose" is the first of 22 movies competing for the top Golden Bear award at the first major European film festival of the year.
The movie, titled "La Mome" in France, stars Marion Cotillard as the diminutive Piaf, born Edith Giovanna Gassion in the working-class Belleville neighborhood of Paris, where she was discovered singing on the streets.
Dahan's film follows her early childhood to her death in 1963 at 47. It ends with the chanteuse's famous "Je ne regrette rien" (I regret nothing).
"It's a magnificent role of incredible richness," said Cotillard, 31. "For me, it goes from 19 to 47 years old."
After four months of immersing herself in the character of the combative Piaf, "a few weeks were needed for the little things to disappear," she told reporters.
Piaf's trademarks were her gutsy delivery and emotional vibrato. Her rocky love life attracted almost as much attention as her music; while that plays a part in the movie, it dwells little on her friendships with celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich.
Dahan said he had wanted to produce an "intimate portrait" rather than a "people parade."
He said he was drawn to Piaf by a picture that showed her in her late teens, "dressed like a punk," with a friend. "It was that photo that made me want to know more and, later, to make the film."
Other competitors at this year's Berlinale, the 57th edition, include Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd," Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German" and Gregory Nava's "Bordertown."
Three more French directors have films in the competition: Andre Techine with "Les Temoins" (The Witnesses), Jacques Rivette with "Ne touchez pas la hache" (Don't Touch the Ax) and Francois Ozon, whose English-language "Angel" will close the festival.
Although the Berlinale often struggles to compete with its counterparts in Cannes and Venice in terms of glamour, the festival prides itself on being accessible to the public.
"Normal people sit next to film critics and big stars. That's what gives it its special flair," festival director Dieter Kosslick told reporters ahead of the opening gala.
The winner will be chosen Feb. 17 by a seven-member jury led by "Taxi Driver" screenwriter Paul Schrader.
Last year's top prize went to Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica," a movie examining how a single mother and her 12-year-old daughter struggle with the aftermath of the Bosnian war.