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Champagne Agony

The grand, sad, only slightly made-up life of Edith Piaf. Plus: Fido, another reason to love zombies.


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.

You can’t get away from zombies these days, as vessels both of blood and pus and social and political satire. Shaun of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Showtime’s Homecoming, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later: You say, Enough zombies already? No, please, make room for Fido. A shotgun wedding of George Romero and SCTV, it’s madly funny—a treat for moviegoers who don’t mind gnawed-off limbs with their high jinks. The title character (played by the marvelous Scottish actor and comedian Billy Connolly) is a domesticated zombie who becomes a pet to a boy named Timmy (K’Sun Ray)—not incidentally the name of the kid in Lassie. This Lassie walks on two legs, makes goo-goo eyes at Mom, and, when his “containment” collar malfunctions, crunches into human flesh. But he has a sweet soul.

Fido takes place after a bloody conflict between the living and the undead—the latter brought under control by a military-industrial outfit that now calls the shots, civil liberties be damned. Most suburbanites seem pleased with the arrangement, though. The collared (and, hence, neutered) zombies make fine groundskeepers. The serene Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson) has a tall miniskirted number named Tammy (Sonja Bennett) who might have other chores. Timmy’s mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) needs to keep up with the Joneses and get a zombie, too, despite the squeamishness of her husband (Dylan Baker), who has never gotten over having to blow away his own father. (The elderly, who can at any moment drop undead, are suspect even in good health.)

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