(No longer in theaters)
Jun 8, 2007
For those of us (a minority, admittedly) who duck and cover at the first blast of Edith Piaf, a French music-hall Ethel Merman without Merman’s likable tackiness, the new biopic La Vie en Rose makes the case for “the little sparrow’s” overemoting: She learned to sing in public by singing for her supper. Olivier Dahan’s film depicts Piaf as an eternal abandoned waif—raised in a brothel, a circus with mean clowns, and on the streets, a performing monkey for a dissolute father and then a brutal pimp. Even sloppy drunk (often), even scared senseless, she was loud, urgent, and on key. (It’s not easy to blast on key, as viewers of American Idol can attest.) We like her even at her most shrewish, as a gamine terrible, because we see the hell she came from and—since this is one of those back-and-forth-in-time biopics—the hell in which she’ll end her days.
Dahan uses Piaf’s song “La Vie en Rose”—basically, a life in clover—ironically, and it turns up as an instrumental, too. You can’t get away from it. The tone is established early on when her father, home from the war, plucks 5-year-old Edith from under filthy sheets in her drunken mother’s home and dumps her at the whorehouse of her icy grandmother. Just when Edith forms a primal bond with a maternal prostitute named Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), her father reclaims her; the girl weeps, and Titine shrieks she’s going to kill herself. It’s ghastly, heartrending, and, as it turns out, fake—there was no Titine. But then, all biopics take liberties. The motif, in any case, is separation and loss. Nearly everyone of real significance in Piaf’s short life dies, gets killed, is carted off, or isn’t in the movie. There’s also a buried trauma that’s unearthed in the end that has you going, “Huh?” Pascal Greggory plays Louis Barrier, the mentor who bullied Piaf into dredging up all those febrile emotions in her singing. So he’s to blame.
La Vie en Rose has some peculiar ellipses. For example, the murder of her first patron (Gérard Depardieu, bestowing his eminence on Edith and the film) comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere. The movie also leaps from 1940 to 1947, omitting the small episode of Germany’s occupation of France at the height of Piaf’s stardom. She was quite the heroine to the Resistance, but either the film was hacked down or the episode didn’t fit in with Dahan’s view of Piaf as a basket case.
Virtually all showbiz biopics have lapses and groaners, but as Jamie Foxx, Joaquin Phoenix, Sissy Spacek, and almost everyone except Kevin Spacey can affirm, they pay off in awards for actors willing to hurl themselves into the volcano. Marion Cotillard is a hurler. She’s prettier than Piaf, with round eyes that take up half her face, but she doesn’t get by on her looks. She knows you can’t play Piaf halfway. As the diva in her prime, she still gives you glimpses of the child famished for connection. Dahan devises a tour de force shot in which she rushes around her apartment, in and out of fantasy, as news of the fate of her prizefighting lover (Jean-Pierre Martins) sinks in. In Piaf’s old age (actually her mid-forties, but she looks 80), she lurches forward, a hunchback with stick arms, those eyes burning with incomprehension. She lip-syncs convincingly to Piaf’s songs. Even when she overacts like mad, she makes you think she’s Piaf overacting like mad—the little sparrow with the foghorn pipes.