I have heard snippets of Edith Piaf singing on occasion and have never really found myself drawn to her voice or style. But she is an icon to the French, so it was probably inevitable someone would one day make a biopic based on her life. That film is “La Vie En Rose” starring Marion Cotillard and directed by Olivier Dahan.
Edith Piaf, the daughter or a singer and a circus acrobat, is left with her grandmother in the war-torn French countryside in 1917. Her father, on leave from the frontline, returns home and takes Edith to live with his mother, a madam, in her brothel in Normandy. There, she meets Titine (Emmanuel Seigner, “The Ninth Gate”), a prostitute who helps to nurse Edith back to health and becomes attached to the little girl. After the war, her father returns and they move out. Her father soon leaves the circus and starts performing on the street. One day, he urges Edith to do something, anything to hold the attention of the crowd and she starts to sing. Her singing captivates the crowd and they throw many coins into the collection purse. She earns a few engagements singing in run down dives and then meets a new mentor. He takes her in and hires Marguerite to act as an accompanist. They practice and practice and practice. With each word, the mentor stops them and they start again. He continues to admonish her; enunciate each word and sing with your hands. Soon, she appears at a large music hall. Initially, stage fright grips her, but she is eventually able to overcome this and captivate the audience.
“La Vie En Rose” is fairly standard as far as movie biopics go, with one exception. It uses a standard formula to depict the subject’s life, guiding us along the path of their life, depicting the most interesting twists and turns. It is even a more standard depiction of a singer. We have seen this type of story before. A bad childhood leads the person in question to become a determined star, always striving to be the best she can be, always desiring to spend as much time on stage as possible. When bad things happen, the subject perseveres, perhaps making them stronger. On occasion, these moments make them weaker. Every challenge leads to a new song in their repertoire of classics. This is the formula a lot of biopics follow and we know it well.
Dahan also uses another familiar technique. We flash back and forward throughout Piaf’s life. One moment, we see her on stage in New York City, late in her life, and she is about to sing in front of an audience. Then, we flash back to her childhood, presumably watching her memories as she prepares to go on stage. Then, we flash forward to Piaf, later in life, as she deals with her failing health. This allows the filmmakers to present the subject in an introspective light. If Piaf is on her deathbed, and remembering back to key points in her life, perhaps she is a sympathetic person.
This technique is usually reserved for people who were ‘difficult’ in their lives. Piaf fits this label. She treats the people around her, her closest advisors, as helpers, as servants. Everything is Piaf’s life is about singing and singing well. If people who are helping her achieve these goals don’t understand that, they can leave. She rants and raves at more than one of her trusted aides on more than one occasion. There is only one time in the film when she truly appears to be nice and that is when she falls in love. The rest of the time, she is one extreme emotion after another. Because of this, she doesn’t come off as very nice and we don’t have a lot of sympathy for her. Dahan seems to recognize this and tries to create sympathy for her by showing how frail and sickly she is later in her life.
The film has a definite rhythm. A snippet of Piaf’s life is followed by a moment of reflection later in her life. Then we get a song. The songs are used to punctuate her life story, to underscore the emotions she is feeling at a particular point. Late in the film, and her life, as Piaf is preparing to perform after a long absence, she meets two songwriters who sing a song for her. She immediately latches onto the lyrics because they form a sort of synopsis of what she is feeling at that point in her life. This is the most overt example of this technique, but it helps to illustrate the feel of the film.
When a filmmaker uses such a conventional narrative for the story, they spend their efforts on production design. “Rose” is no exception. The film spans the course of almost five decades and faithfully recreates the French countryside during World War I, Paris during World War II and New York and California during the 50s. The production design is very good and very complete, helping to transport us to these places and these times.
“Rose” is a very typical biopic with one exception. Marion Cotillard seems to have been possessed by the spirit of her subject. We have seen many amazing performances recreating a musician’s life; Jamie Foxx did a great job as Ray Charles, Angela Bassett did a great job as Tina Turner, Reese Witherspoon did a great job as June Carter Cash. While all of these performances were great, and they had occasional moments when the performer seems to be channeling the spirit of their subject, Cotilard is possessed throughout.
From the moment Cotillard first appears as Piaf, you get the sense you are going to visit with the singer, that she is going to visit you and tell you about her life. Part of this is because Cotillard gives such a bravura performance. She makes Piaf her own, for good or for bad, and helps us to see all of the trials the singer went through. Part of the reason I didn’t like Edith Piaf very much is because Cotillard does such a great job of recreating the singer’s life, her rants, her loves and her good and bad points. This is also part of the reason the film is less than perfect. She is so good at portraying Piaf, warts and all, that she wants to show us the bad bits as well. It doesn’t matter if these moments change our opinion of the French Icon. She seems to be Piaf, as much as my limited knowledge of the singer can define.
Piaf apparently only had one true love in her life. And we know this because she says it many times after she meets Marcel, a French boxer who she meets when she relocates to New York during World War II. This is the one moment when we actually get a glimpse at another side of Piaf. She is madly in love with the athlete and he seems to return her affections. As soon as they meet, she becomes a completely different person, a nice person, someone we might want to know. This was, for me, the best part of the film because Cotillard portrays Piaf’s love in such an unabashed, puppy dog style I almost fell in love. But as with any other singer featured in a biopic, this love will not last.
Cotillard helps us to realize that Piaf had a huge amount of talent, whether we like her or not. And for this, “La Vie En Rose” is worth a viewing by the singer’s most devoted fans. But the film runs a long 130 minutes, and this makes it a stretch for the rest of us. A long stretch best served at home, while watching the film on DVD.