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LA VIE EN ROSE, 2007
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigneur, Gérard Depardieu, Jean-Pierre Martins
Musical biography of Edith Piaf, famed French singer and performer.
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Musical bio pics have to be one the most, if not the most, predictable of film genres. The dramatic arc is always the same - the star in waiting has a difficult, often poor childhood; then come the struggles for initial recognition, quickly followed by early, overwhelming fame. In the final act, broken love affairs, tortuous addictions and violent fate are the rocks on which their lives most often crash. Although these crises may sometimes be followed by a redemptive second chance at love and life, ie “Walk The Line” (2005) and “Ray” (2004); often they’re not, ie “Lady Sings The Blues” (1972), “The Rose” (1979), or “Sweet Dreams” (1985). Whether the star’s life ends happily or not, and no matter how much talent is present in the making of these films, the writers and directors seem to be forever confronted with the fact that their hard work may easily be mistaken for another episode of VH1’s “Behind The Music”.
In “La Vie En Rose” (released as “La Môme”, in France, for Piaf’s nickname, “the sparrow”) director, Olivier Dahan, is clearly attempting to avoid such a fate for his film of the life of Edith Piaf. Dahan bypasses the usual linear narrative and deliberately plays with continuity in the telling of Piaf’s life story. He uses a crosscutting technique throughout the entire film, playing with our perceptions of time and space, and therefore refuses to settle into the well honed formula of these movies. Thus, the film begins in 1959, toward the end of Piaf’s life, at a major concert in New York City; cuts to 1918 to show us her hard scrabble childhood in France where, for a time, she is left in a brothel; back to 1959; 1918 again; and then to Montmarte in 1935 and so on. Dahan does not choose the familiar structure of using a late in life episode as a framing mechanism. These cuts and cross cuts are the whole film. This choice represents a risk for the filmmaker as the film might end up being dramatically confusing. As it is, Dahan’s decision largely works because he never lets the film lose its focus which is, of course, Piaf.
Dahan’s vision is aided beautifully here by Marion Cotillard who gives an extraordinary performance which won her many awards, including the Academy Award for Best Actress. She succeeds in melding into Piaf to such a degree that the performance becomes one of those rare instances in movies where you forget that you are watching an actor. She is assisted by make up work that won the film it’s other Academy Award. As well, Cotillard lip synchs to Piaf’s recordings during the stage numbers, as the singer had such a distinct voice it would have distracted to have an actor try to duplicate it. However, none of this takes away from Cotillard’s achievement. She gives her whole self over to becoming Piaf in all stages of her life - the young, elfin woman; the mature, glamourous star and the prematurely aged, hunched over, ragged older woman. What’s impressive is that Cotillard, who is a beautiful woman on her own, disappears into Edith’s skin, so that even the young Piaf bears no resemblance to the young actress playing her.
While Dahan’s approach to Piaf’s life largely works, particularly with the brilliant Cotillard in the lead role, there is a weakness inherent in it. The supporting cast, which features some of the most prominent French actors working, never really takes off. As a result, relationships don’ts build between Edith and her friends and lovers. The film’s style is too episodic for that. However, the director does succeed in building a dramatic rhythm through his crosscuts. He establishes an even pace, even as he cuts from one crisis in Edith’s life to another - her childhood blindness; being sent to live in a brothel; subsequent separations from parents, guardians and lovers. It is clear Dahan is intent on not being too determinative about how she became not just a singer, but a great French cultural icon of the mid-20th century. He just shows you the world in which Edith moved and how she negotiated her way through it. There is an integrity to this approach, and Piaf’s life had enough drama to fill several films anyway, so the lack of continuity in the depiction of Edith’s relationships isn’t fatal to the film, but is still felt. Overall, Dahan succeeds enough in making the links clear between events in Piaf’s early life and her later behaviour - the many abandonments she suffers with her later emotional collapses, for instance, that we accept his dramatic choices and structure.
The film is well shot, for the most part. It sometimes seems too dark to make out characters and action, although this may be the transfer to DVD. French life and society between the wars is evoked memorably and there are some startling visuals, a fire breather silhouetted against a night sky, as Edith works in the circus as a child, for instance.
“La Vie En Rose” is not always an easy film to watch. Edith Piaf’s life is one of those that no one would have dared make up, so full of pathos and trauma was it. It is a tribute to both Olivier Dahan and Marion Cotillard that they so successfully capture not only much of the terror and isolation which Piaf must have felt, but also the artistic joy that she took in her great talent. The film is a stand out, not only among musical bios, but as an all around film experience.