By Matt Singer
[Photo: Marion Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2007]
A confused and awkward movie gets in the way of its own remarkable lead performance in “La Vie en Rose,” the story of famous French songbird Edith Piaf. Though writer/director Olivier Dahan claims in “La Vie”‘s press notes that he “didn’t want to make a biopic,” he has done exactly that. Burdened by the overwhelming weight of its subject’s endless tragedies, its running time and narrative are as bloated as its star performance, by Marion Cotillard, is refined to precision.
Piaf was one of the most popular French singers of the 20th century and before, during, and after her ascent to superstardom, her life was packed with enough personal horror to fill a particularly juicy very special episode of “Behind the Music.” Abandoned by her parents, cared for her brothel madam of a grandmother, Edith was blind by age three, and begging for pocket change by 13. A few strokes of good luck transformed the street performer into a popular nightclub singer, but her career was nearly derailed when the man who discovered and nurtured her talent (played here by Gérard Depardieu) winds up murdered. Edith overcomes that obstacle and many more along the way to becoming a French icon, but not before she has torrid affairs with married men, loses a loved one to a plane crash and is sent to an early grave by morphine addiction and cancer. Like most biopics of this ilk those about tremendously famous individuals who did great things the focus remains on big dramatic story beats rather than a coherent narrative as a whole.
Cotillard plays Piaf almost entirely herself, from the gutter to the grave. Thanks in part to a remarkable makeup job, she is tremendously convincing, even as Piaf grows so sickly that she comes to more closely resemble Nosferatu than her younger vivacious incarnations. Cotillard seems to age, not just physically, but emotionally as well: her voice, her eyes, everything changes about her over the course of Piaf’s deterioration.
Dahan shows us all of the “important” moments but follows the flow of Piaf’s life very loosely, juxtaposing images of the old Piaf with those of the young. What’s missing, unfortunately, is any sense of the transformation between these women: the one who had to sing on the street to avoid prostitution; the one who was a national treasure and the one who, just a few years later, could barely feed herself. The lack of any connective tissue between these eras undermines Cotillard’s performance because it removes a sense of coherence from her work. The transitions are at times so jarring they hurt the otherwise seamless illusion that Cotillard creates in the role.
Dahan makes other strange choices. At Piaf’s greatest moment of onstage triumph he removes her voice from the soundtrack so we can’t hear it and, in general, he doesn’t bring any sense of magic or power to Edith’s theatrical exploits and, say what you will about “Ray” or “Walk the Line” they at least gave those musical numbers a buzz of excitement. Dahan also seems to have no interest in the part of Piaf’s life that might be the single most fascinating the period where she went from a woman of no money and zero self-confidence to a massive egomaniacal diva and spends at least ten minutes of an already distended narrative turning a largely inconsequential boxing match into his very own “Raging Bull.” And by bringing in the decrepit Piaf so early, and by returning to her over and over during the nearly two-and-a-half hour movie, he creates the impression that “The Little Sparrow,” as she was known, spent most of her life dying rather than living.
The ending, where Piaf comes to grips with her own mortality, is effectively sad; the rest is just sadly ineffective, and “La Vie en Rose” never justifies a full third of its running time. When you don’t particularly care about the person at the heart of a movie this jumbled, it’s more difficult to look past the flaws to enjoy its star. “La Vie en Rose” treats Cotillard almost as shabbily as life treated Piaf.
“La Vie en Rose” opens in limited release June 8th (official site).