The Reeler


June 7, 2007

La Vie En Rose

Piaf-aganza fails to connect the dots between its biopic bullet points

Even among the tightly knit and increasingly quaint legion of performers who shot from the gutter’s gutter with only the propulsive talent that would come to torment them, Edith Piaf holds a place of honor. The lore: Abandoned by her mother and raised in a Parisian brothel where illness temporarily blinded and deafened her, then taken on the road by her circus performer father, Edith was on her own by 15, singing in the streets for her supper. At 16 she had a baby who died in infancy, and at 20 she was discovered by a nightclub owner whose murder resulted in Piaf being accused as an accessory to the crime. Aside from the Earth-shattering success that she experienced after that, the bullet points don’t get much sunnier; Piaf died of cancer, a wretched morphine addict, at the age of 47.

La Vie En Rose, Olivier Dahan’s Piaf-aganza, suffers most critically from over-fidelity to the phenom singer’s bullet points. Though the film is described in promotional materials as “a swirling, impressionistic portrait,” it is in fact a boilerplate biopic with swirling aspirations that manifest themselves mainly in the curious and often counter-productive rearrangement of its own bullet-point vignettes. That’s not to say that the film is not impressive on several counts -- the set direction, for instance, is dreamy and embellished in childhood, crisp and lush in Piaf’s prime, dank and numinous in her decline, and Marion Cotillard’s embodiment of Piaf is devastating in its control and complexity. It’s that it is somehow self-consciously, declaratively impressive; La Vie En Rose operates in a mode of excellence that ultimately becomes more concerned with exploring itself than the subject at hand. That’s the bad kind of swirling.

Opening the film with Piaf’s on-stage collapse in 1959, we then jump back to her childhood in the slums of Belleville, 1918. Dahan continues to alternate between the beginning and the end of Piaf’s life, ostensibly bringing both ends toward the middle. The technique creates a confusing push and pull in time that lands us right in the pumping heart of Cotillard’s performance only to retreat back to safer (duller) ground. Several of the set pieces from Piaf’s childhood seem excessively long for the return they give, though the scene of the pubescent Edith making her street singing debut at her father’s insistence manages to be suitably stirring even while announcing itself as such. Even there, however, Dahan makes some odd choices, such as not subtitling the lyrics of the song Edith sings (a choice that will be repeated somewhat arbitrarily). Perhaps he assumes American audiences will recognize the French national anthem (and I wish him well with that), but titling the lyrics would have given greater resonance to the emotional response young Edith garners from her WWI-weary crowd.

From there forward, the diegetic and non-diegetic music is Piaf, Piaf, Piaf. The star is born when Louis Leplée (Gerard Depardieu) hears Edith on the street, and re-christens the 4’8” scrapper “La Môme Piaf” (the Little Sparrow). Cotillard plays the unlikely ingénue as defiant, stooped, sheepish and spritely, a host of contradictions that I dearly wish amounted to more than a series of captivating facial expressions. Instead her rise, which Dahan zips through rather quickly (and with little heed paid to the critical backdrop of World War II), finds Edith as something of a cipher, unlikable and unknowable, a tantrum on two legs who lives only for herself. Cotillard lip syncs with remarkable skill to actual Piaf recordings, and the sheer overflow of life in that voice only throws the hyper-punctuated inadequacies of the character's off-stage existence into starker relief. Piaf’s notoriously shit luck with men is meant to culminate in the death of her married lover, middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan (played by Jean-Pierre Martins, with whom Cotillard shares the film’s only fleeting moments of tenderness), though her two husbands cross the screen with all the import of an additional armoire.

When Piaf really puts her back into her own decline -- a journey that is by now beyond fetishized in the musician biopic -- the high drama of her performances is amped up to face-cracking volume. With her deathbed hallucinations offering the first news of a love child, a daughter whose death is strongly connected to Piaf’s negligence and self-absorption, mirroring her own maternal abandonment, a portion of the singer’s character is illuminated, if dimly, awkwardly and too late. This revelation is followed by the finale rendition of “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which delivers the requisite goose bumps, “requisite” being the key word. Even as I dutifully fielded my closing credit chills, the film's haphazard -- I’m sorry, swirling -- pastiche of a woman, whose life is offered as all bullet and no point, left too much room for nagging doubt: Really? Nothing?

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