Related Articles: Movies, All

La Vie en Rose

Uneven Piaf Biopic Elevated by Star-Making Performance

Directed and co-written by Olivier Dahan (Ghost River, Tom Thumb), La Vie en Rose ("Môme, La") explores French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s short, tragic life. Born Edith Giovanna Gassion in Belleville, Paris in 1915, Gassion (later renamed “Piaf”, the French equivalent of the word “sparrow”) loved and lost and suffered, combining her personal experiences with her prodigious singing talents to become one of France’s, and later the world’s, most beloved performers.

Beginning in 1959 as Piaf (Marion Cotillard) struggles with drug addiction and deteriorating health, La Vie en Rose jumps around chronologically, following Piaf as a five-year old (Manon Chevallier) abandoned serially by first her mother, Anetta (Clotilde Courau), a sometime singer, and her father, Louis (Jean-Paul Rouve), a circus performer, Edith finds momentary happiness living in her grandmother Louise’s (Catherine Allegre) brothel in Normandy. There, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), one of Louise’s prostitutes, showers Edith with love and attention.

Edith’s brief flirtation with happiness changes when she temporarily loses her eyesight, and Louis’ reappearance ends Edith’s brief idyll. The self-absorbed, alcoholic Louis forces Edith to work as his servant and assistant, but when his act fails, the ten-year old Edith (Pauline Burlet) becomes a street singer to help them earn a living.

Ten years later, Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu), a cabaret owner, discovers Edith singing on a street corner. Entranced, Leplée gives Edith a backing band, a stage, and helps Edith overcome performance anxiety. When Edith loses Leplée as a mentor, she gains another, Raymond Asso (Marc Barbé), who helps her develop her signature performing style. Success follows, including an extended engagement in New York City and at the Olympia concert hall in Paris, but personal tragedy undermines Piaf’s professional triumphs. Friends, lovers, even two husbands, come and go, but long-term happiness proves elusive. At thirty-four, Piaf begins a promising, if brief, love affair with Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), a married middleweight boxer. Just two years later, a car accident leaves Piaf with chronic arthritis and addicted to morphine.

Not surprisingly, Dahan and his co-screenwriter, Isabelle Sobelman, were forced to compress or eliminate events and people from Edith Piaf’s life. They also took dramatic license with some events, changing when they happened or the relative age of the characters. Minor changes for dramatic purposes, however, aren’t really the problem with La Vie en Rose.

What is a problem is that Dahan and Sobelman seem to presume that moviegoers are closely familiar with not just the general contours of Piaf’s story and the major and minor events that made up her life, but everyone who passed through her life for brief durations. Dahan makes little effort to introduce the ever-changing members of Piaf’s entourage, who seemingly appear out of nowhere minus names or relevant context.

La Vie en Rose’s non-linear structure compounds a seemingly minor problem. Rather than work through Piaf’s life chronologically, Dahan decided to start near the end of her life as she collapses on stage, then jumps back in time to her early childhood, before jumping forward in time and then back again. The non-linear structure makes for unnecessarily muddled, meandering storytelling that isn’t helped by the film's overlong running time or the odd decision to leave the majority of the songs performed in the film minus subtitles. The film’s producers translate only two songs from Piaf’s oeuvre, “La Vie en Rose” and "Non, je ne regrette rien".

Story aside, La Vie en Rose is worth seeing due to the period detail and cinematography, top-notch production values, music, and Marion Cotillard’s riveting performance as Edith Piaf. Whether she’s playing Piaf as a tentative, uneducated twenty-year old finding her voice and identity in pre-World War II Paris or almost unrecognizable as the frail, terminally ill Piaf at forty-seven, Cotillard gives the kind of performance that moviegoers, critics, and award societies will be recognizing and talking about this year and next (as well they should).

Cotillard can expect a call from Hollywood any day now. She probably shouldn’t answer it, unless of course they can offer a role with the same kind of dramatic and emotional range.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars