From a humble, messy upbringing that would give Dickens pause, Edith Piaf rose to become among the most beloved figures of 20th-century France. Indeed, she was internationally recognized as the premier performer of chanson Française, emotional ballads that evoked the poetry of ordinary lives.
La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan’s bio-pic of the singer, named for her signature song, opens in 1959 during Piaf’s twilight. She is wobbly, pathetic — and collapses mid-song, later to be revived by an “injection.” Already, we know the story to be unveiled will be a tragedy of sorts.
Dahan’s propensity to jump around in time — a bit from Piaf’s youth, another from her death bed, then onto her discovery in the 1930s singing in Paris streets, and so on — is often distracting. It’s especially tricky to keep the rotating cast of managers, colleagues and lovers straight. But perhaps that’s Dahan’s intention: Whatever interchangeable planets orbited Piaf, she was the immovable star. And why shouldn’t Piaf’s story feel as jumpy, jumbled and chaotic as the woman herself? I agree in principle, but wish the narrative was more cohesive.
Piaf’s was a life lived in the glare of fame and the murk of personal sadness buoyed by an indefinable joie de vivre. (“You’re playing with your life,” a wiser colleague warns the impetuous young Piaf. “What else do I play with?” she retorts smartly.) With little traditional structure and support, Piaf drew her life-force from song — not just in the act of performing, which proved lucrative and fulfilling, but in the essence of the material.
Besides Piaf’s tumultuous, bio-pic-ready life, the film’s greatest asset is Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of her. It’s one of those mesmerizing physical performances where the balls-to-the-wall transformation just threatens to — but doesn’t quite — break the spell. Much credit is owed the hair and makeup crews who artfully make the same 30-year-old actress both a fresh-faced teen and a withered old woman.
But it’s Cotillard who puts the bounce in the brash young Piaf, and later totters sadly like the hunched, broken bird she’s become (the diminutive Piaf drew her stage name from an early nickname, “La Môme Piaf,” or the kid sparrow). I was frequently drawn to Cotillard’s hands, which seem to be working as hard to convey emotion as her moony eyes.
La Vie adopts a warts-and-all approach, even as it’s missing a few warts — and beauty marks. Significant details of Piaf’s story are omitted, such as her work with the Resistance, her coterie of famous friends and her marriages. Dahan lingers over a lonely death at just 47, but neglects Piaf’s triumphant funeral (her cortege stopped Paris traffic). Clearly, Dahan has succumbed to that endless romance whereby great artists are forged through pain, and little else.
Those viewers unable to fill in the missing details themselves will have to settle for melodrama, of which there is plenty. The universality of rags-to-riches-to-worse should make La Vie accessible to the uninitiated, as well as providing an introduction to Piaf’s remarkable songs (re-mastered here, and lip-synced by Cotillard).
Despite its pervasive melancholy, La Vie en Rose remains lush and even life-affirming, as intense, pleasurable and frustrating as its immensely talented subject. Only the occasional song is subtitled, including the film’s last number when a frail Piaf defiantly takes the Paris Olympia stage to debut what would become her second-most famous song. It remains both her manifesto and epitaph: “Non, je ne regrette rien” — No, no regrets …
In French, with subtitles. Manor