The movie starts in 1955, where Edith Piaf is performing. She collapses, and prays to Saint Therese to help her live.
We flash back to 1915, on the streets of Belleville, Paris. There are children running around the streets, and there are 2 boys making fun of a little girl. A woman walks by and asks the girl where her parents are. She (young Edith Gassion) points to a woman singing in the streets.
Edith’s mother leaves for Paris to try her luck with stardom, and leaves Edith with her grandmother, who basically neglects the little girl. Edith’s father is a contortionist who returns from the circles and rescues her from the negligent grandmother. However, he soon tires of caring for Edith, and leaves her with his mother, who runs a brothel in Normandy. There, a prostitute named Titine becomes Edith’s surrogate mother. While living at the brothel, Edith contracts severe conjunctivitis, which leaves her blind for months. Titine encourages the little girl to pray to Saint Therese to restore her sight. One day, Edith opens her eyes and she can see again.
Edith’s father returns suddenly one day and rips the little girl from the only source of love and care she’s ever known. The teenaged Edith joins a circus with her father, and cooks and cleans for him while he performs his act. One night, while cleaning the dishes, she sees a vision of Saint Therese in the sparks of a fire-breather’s flames. Saint Therese asks Edith whom she wants to pray for. The girl responds, “I pray for Titine.”
Edith’s father has a falling out with the circus manager and quits. Soon, her father scrapes a living by performing on the streets of the suburbs of Paris. One day, a passerby asks if Edith (who collected the money) was part of the act. Her father pushes Edith to the front and forces her to do something. Edith opens her mouth and out comes the most beautiful voice the audience has ever heard. It’s gritty, but strong, and gripping. Soon, Edith is performing solo, earning her own keep with her best friend Mômone.
Edith is eventually discovered by Louis Leplée, an owner of a nightclub. He invites her to perform as his venue, and gives her the stage name “La Môme Piaf”, or “The Sparrow Kid” on account of her small stature. Edith’s first performance soars, and she is at once overwhelmed and surprised by the thunderous applause.
Leplée is suddenly killed, suspected to have been the victim of the mob. For a moment, Edith is a suspect, but is acquitted. Despite losing momentum momentarily, Edith goes from strength to strength, dropping the “Kid” moniker, and taking on a new name, “Edith Piaf”. Her famous song “La Vie en Rose” is written, and received with a mighty welcome by audiences. Edith travels to New York, to try her hand at the American audience. At first, in Edith’s words, “They don’t get me, and I don’t get them.” She sticks to it though and starts generating a loyal following including Marlene Dietrich, who attends a concert one night and causes Edith to fall into a star struck trance.
She also meets the boxer, Marcel Cerdan in New York. They fall in love, and for the first time, Edith’s life is filled with joy. However, it is short-lived. Marcel dies in a plane crash from France to New York. Edith breaks down.
This is followed by a car accident, which leads to a growing addiction to morphine. She also starts to experience symptoms of arthritis, which makes it hard for her to walk. She starts drinking heavily. The alcohol and morphine abuse precedes the collapse that we saw at the beginning of the movie. She does live on, and spends time in a rehabilitation facility. However, the abuse has left its scars, at 44, Edith looks like a woman of 60. She is crippled by arthritis and is frail and helpless. At one point, she mutters to her nurse, “Will I ever sing again?”
She does give one more series of concerts at the Paris Olympia Concert Hall. She sings the poignant song “Je ne regretted rien” “I regret nothing”. Frail as she was physically, her voice never let her down, and her audiences drank in every last moment of her performances. And even in her weakest moments, when her entourage insists on her ending her engagement at the venue, she triumphs with her sheer determination to sing. When she is singing, her frailty falls away, and her voice dominates the concert hall.
At 47, Edith falls ill with cancer. On her deathbed, she flashes back to moments in her past: a rare moment where her father shows her his love for her by buying her a doll she’d been coveting; the moment when she finds out that her baby girl, Marcelle was going to die of meningitis (this happened some time before Leplée discovers her).
Soon, those memories fade too, and Edith Piaf’s life slips away.