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.)
Fido is set in a retro society reminiscent of the fifties—which is a bit of a drag, since the Fiestaware palette is heavy-handed and the decade’s archetypes have, in terms of satire, been picked clean. But Andrew Currie, the director and co-writer (with Robert Chomiak), loves his characters too much to score easy points. Even the pipe-smoking zombie-war hero and quintessential fifties patriarch is full of surprises—in part because he’s played by Henry Czerny, who understands that satire must never preclude spirit. Who knew Carrie-Anne Moss was so poised a comedienne? Even Julianne Moore would be in awe of the way she balances stylization and sexual longing. Dylan Baker has never been so funny and poignant. K’Sun Ray is a find—as cute as a Culkin but with depths.
Billy Connolly appeared at the screening of Fido I attended—organized by the comic-book/gore store Forbidden Planet—and it deepened my admiration. Watching him extemporize brilliantly, with his long white hair and beard, I couldn’t believe he’d have the guts to play a role in which he’s mute and clean-shaven, let alone that he’d give a performance that conjures up Boris Karloff and Stan Laurel simultaneously. Although his skin is purplish and mottled, his features remain naked, and his eyes convey the sadness of someone caught between two worlds, unable to enter either. The bit of hubba-hubba that creeps in when he’s around Moss gives us hope, though. The flesh is never that weak.
It’s hard to believe anyone could watch the devastating documentary Unborn in the USA without wanting, at some point, to run screaming from the theater. It began as a thesis project by two students at Rice University, Stephen Fell and Will Thompson, who chronicle, without judgment, the activities of anti-abortion activists, from the most sorrowful to the most righteously murderous. Fell and Thompson largely concentrate on the people who stand on street corners and college campuses with blown-up pictures of aborted fetuses. These activists are getting smarter about engaging their foes—they take classes in empathy. They let those photos do most of the talking. At one point, the filmmakers cut between the erection of the billboards and the lifting of the gore-drenched Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Let’s rub their noses in the horror.
Where do Fell and Thompson stand? With the exception of one title card—in which they demolish a woman’s emotional assertion that having an abortion gave her breast cancer—they are rigorously objective. I’m sad to say that through the eyes of the movie’s subjects the pro-choice activists come off as glib, unfeeling, and profane. The most harrowing sequence is saved for the end: A young woman becomes so distraught by the sight of these pictures that she slaps the minister who engages her and is taken away in handcuffs. But whatever your views on abortion (mine are extremely tangled), you need to hear the subjects of this film, if only to be able to fight them more effectively.
For Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian and actor known for his verbose and at times vulgar stand-up routines, playing a verbally challenged zombie was a departure from his normal roles. Connolly told the Calgary Herald, “This was one of the hardest acting jobs I’ve ever done. I’m not being facetious. It was hard because I’m so used to words—they come in very handy. Especially when you want something. But I have to say, years as a drunk did help me access the nonverbal part of my brain.” Connolly was actually the second choice for the role of Fido; Peter Stormare had to drop out after landing a recurring part on Prison Break.
La Vie En Rose
Directed by Olivier Dahan. Picturehouse. PG-13.
Directed by Andrew Currie. Lionsgate Films. PG-13.
Unborn in the USA
Directed by Stephen Fell and Will Thompson. First Run Features.