La Vie en Rose
Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) was born into pain. The daughter of a street performer and circus contortionist, the girl was bundled off to live with her grandmother, a brothel matron, while her father was sent to the trenches of World War I. There, ravaged by illness and even blinded for a time, Edith found some modicum of happiness among the prostitutes who became like surrogate mothers. But this respite ended when her father returned and snatched her away to use as a part of his circus act. Finding it hard going one dreary day, he forced Edith to perform. Not knowing what to do, the young girl opened her mouth and sang “La Marseilles.” It was as if Zeus’ thunderbolt fell. The gathered crowd, like the audience, sat in rapt astonishment as a voice at once colossal and delicate, strong and clear as a bell, surged from her tiny frame. And so the world met “the sparrow.”
If we assume this was the beginning of Edith’s way out of a life of hardship, we are wrong. When next we see her, she is a young woman, warbling on street corners and about to turn tricks for her supper when she is overheard by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) the owner of a Parisian nightclub. The impresario scoops this diamond in the rough from the streets and begins to shape her for the stage. It is a process continued by many competent men (Leplée himself is gunned down shortly after rescuing her, probably by a jealous pimp) until the diminutive (she stood only 4 feet, 8 inches tall) firebrand is transformed into the most famous and beloved French singer of all time.
Such stories are supposed to have happy endings, but Edith’s life was anything but. As a young girl, she prayed repeatedly to St. Theresa whom she imagined visiting and speaking to her in her times of greatest need. For many people, the struggle is to hold on to religious fervor as we shift into adulthood. Not so with Edith. She continued to pray to St. Theresa into adulthood. It was St. Theresa and her protective embrace, not Edith’s faith, which seemed to vanish in adulthood. Edith’s joys and tragedies seemed simultaneous. She loved many men (among them Yves Montand and middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan) but lost them all to tragic death or her own indifference.
La Vie en Rose is a story of a 47 year long suicide attempt, set to some of the most exquisite music you’ve ever heard. Surrounded by a swirl of lovers, friends and admirers — none of whom remained long enough to rely on — Edith lived instead for nights of belting out sublime cabaret ballads, guzzling champagne, lustful passion and morphine injections. When life was done with her, she was an old husk of a woman, prematurely old with thinning, dyed hair and a stooped back. Haunted by her reckless living, she died at aged 47 but looked 80.
The film follows a shattered chronology, skipping back and forth through time, leaping from Paris to New York and then doubling back on itself. It has an arc but no trajectory. It is almost impossible to stick entirely with it, though it doesn’t really matter. The camera is borne on the breeze of Edith’s own scattered memories. Though certain visual signposts remain to guide the viewer, the linear progression of her disintegration — a disintegration that begins with her birth and ends with her death — is all too clear.
Olivier Dahan's La Vie en Rose is not a perfect film, encumbered by its clumsy narrative and too reliant on cheap melodrama to reinforce Edith’s tortured state. But it is also an elegantly directed biopic with several scenes of staggering power (pay close attention to the subtlety with which Dahan handles Edith’s world debut, and the moment she discovers her beloved Cerdan has perished in a plane crash after she persuaded him to visit her in New York).
Marion Cotillard’s performance is so colossal that it overshadows the film’s faults, so blinding you to its blemishes and imperfections that you wonder whether you saw them at all in the first place. One moment she is a beautiful, vibrant woman, and the next is an unnaturally aged hag, a grotesque mime whose body is ravaged by a life of abuse and neglect. Cotillard joins Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) in so completely embodying a role that it seems more possession than performance.
The film’s songs (many of which are actually Piaf recordings) are exquisite and will resonate in your heart and mind long after you leave the theater. What better legacy can there be? It is very appropriate that of all the songs for which Edith Piaf is famous, none is more beleoved than the poignant “Non je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”). It is a defiant anthem to a life of self-destruction and unforeseen, undeserved heartbreak. When everything around her was in tatters, somehow her will and her voice sang on.