If you read many reviews of La Vie en Rose, you’re sure to find complaints that this account of Edith Piaf’s life overlooks her participation in the French resistance during the German occupation of World War Two.
But if, like me, you didn’t know much about her going in, you’ll find plenty of storytelling here to enthrall you. Maybe too much. Edith Piaf has an enormous, enthusiastic audience for her music. But her musical legacy is only part of the story. The chapters illustrated in Olivier Dahan’s film introduce us to an extraordinary life, full of remarkable twists and turns. If a novelist had invented the story of Piaf’s rise to legendary status, readers would have laughed it off as implausible. I’m sure Piaf’s role in World War II is a story worth discovering, but frankly, I’m not sure this film could have managed any more drama.
La Vie en Rose is a biopic bursting at the seams, driven by an actress of compelling energy and talent. And it is not about war or politics. It is about singing, and how the mystery of art can deliver us from pain… and even help us craft something valuable from it.
And Piaf had a lot of pain to endure. Eventually the pain… and its chemical antidotes… would prove too much for her.
When she was a child, Edith’s mother abandoned her. Her father discovered her in dire straits, and he carried her along with him. He was a contortionist who joined the circus. And when she became too much trouble, he left her with a brothel manager… his own mother. When Edith lost her eyesight, it seems God intervened in a rather dramatic way. Raised by prostitutes, Edith eventually learned to sing for her supper on Belleville street corners of Paris, half drunk and knowing better than to hope for anything but another meal.
Then, she stumbled into the most unlikely episode of all. Discovered by a club owner with a sharp ear, Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu, magisterial in his small role), she found fame almost overnight. For her diminuitive stature she earned the name “La môme Piaf” (“Little Sparrow”).
And… after a murder (you knew there would be murder, didn’t you?), she ascended to become the most beloved singer in France.
But the adventure didn’t stop there. Piaf romanced world middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan. She toured America. And eventually she fell into the kind of drug abuse that so frequently ruins the lives of the great artists — morphine, to be specific.
Let’s not say any more about the story… there are too many surprises that should be left unspoiled. And even if you know her biography well, you’ll be caught up in Olivier Dahan’s interpretation.
Let us instead praise the actress who will very likely accept an Oscar in early 2007… Marion Cotillard, whose astonishing performance is the most engaging we’ve seen in years. She doesn’t just look like Piaf… she manages to lip-synch to Piaf’s singing flawlessly, so we do not doubt for a moment that we’re watching the real thing. And while Pauline Burlet and Mannon Chevallier give sophisticated performances as five- and ten-year-old Edith, Cotillard plays her in her late teens all the way to her death at 47. She’s utterly convincing.
The rest of the cast sketch memorable characters, but Cotillard’s performance is too forceful to let their own stories take on much shape… and that may well have been what it was like to come within shouting distance of Piaf. It seems that anyone who became involved with her ended up as a satellite to her blazing sun.
Especially impressive are Sylvie Testud, who plays Piaf’s loyal friend Momone (Sylvie Testud); Emmanuelle Seigner as the motherly hooker Titine; Depardieu, whose turn is restrained but powerful; and Jean-Pierre Martins, as the charismatic fighter Marcel Cerdan.
Tetsuo Nagata’s exquisite cinematography is award-worthy as well. And so are the lavish sets and show pieces, from the smelly street corners and alleys to the smoky nightclubs to the glorious performance halls. The film draws you into these contexts as if you were caught up in a furious dance. You hardly have time to catch your breath while it spins us from one era to the next.
“La Vie en Rose” refers to a “rose-colored” perspective on life, a line from one of Piaf’s popular songs. But it’s clear that this battlescarred singer could not maintain a “rose-colored” perspective… not as she suffered one crushing disappointment after another. And when she sings “No, I regret nothing” in the final act, it seems more a defiant, stubborn declaration expression of courage than a true statement… for how could she not regret some of her more damaging choices along the way?
The film is so fraught with tragedy and heartbreak, that it’s remarkable how much joy and humor we experience with this diva along the way. When Piaf’s singing soars, we behold the power of art to liberate the artist from suffering, at least for a while. We see how a human being can collaborate with a power beyond herself to form diamonds out of the darkness and the pressure. Sure, we have seen countless Icarus stories on the big screen — artists rise to glory, then fall victim to their own weaknesses due to personal pain and pressure. But La Vie en Rose does capture in a rare and powerful way the redemptive light that shines through when an artist commits herself passionately to excellence. We watch as this beleaguered survivor is infused with inspiration the way a lantern fills up with light.
And thus, while the film’s acrobatic leaps backward and forward in time demand that we pay close attention, this bold design draws us into Piaf’s own experience… a life lived at high speed, prone to dizzying turns in which she must have struggled to reconcile her experiences of poverty and luxury, of pain and glory, of triumph and loss. We’re spun around and around, constantly reminded of her traumatic childhood, surprised by unexpected blessings, shattered by relentless disappointments, exhilarated by sweeping arcs of music. This was her life. This was the storm that caught her up.
I’m adding La Vie en Rose to my short list of excellent films about great artists, alongside Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Cotillard deserves an Oscar, and the film deserves to be seen on a big screen with a first-rate sound system. If you don’t appreciate Piaf’s music when you go in to see it, you may still dislike her voice by the end… but she’ll have won your respect.