I don’t like biopics. I don’t even like the word “biopic” but it’s easier to say than “feature film biography” which, I suppose, is the whole point of saying it in the first place. Biopics rarely seem to transcend their subject matter, instead they remain shackled by the need to hit all the biographic high and low notes. Beyond the pleasure of seeing a recognizable actor so obviously transformed into a familiar personage, my enjoyment of a biopic depends almost entirely on the depth of my interest in the subject to begin with. For some reason however, I’m drawn every time to the life of a famous figure played out on a movie screen.
Every once in a while a great biopic comes along. One of my favorite movies for example is Ed Wood. Tim Burton’s biography about the legendarily bad filmmaker turns the story of a fool and a dreamer into an inspirational examination of the creative urge, the will to succeed and the joy of doing what you love. It transcends its source material and becomes something much greater, but Ed Wood is an exception. Most biopics simply offer a sketch of someone’s life and, while they may enrich your appreciation of the subject, they lack a deeper resonance. La Vie en Rose, the new film about French singer Edith Piaf, unfortunately falls into the latter category.
In an effort perhaps to punch up the familiar story of an artist’s rise, fall and early tragic death, La Vie en Rose employs a fractured narrative that begins with the beginning of the end as France’s greatest popular singer collapses during a recording session in America in 1959. The film then flashes back and forth, alternating from the singer’s childhood of illness and poverty, to her adulthood of superstardom and finally her decline in later years from drugs, alcohol, accidents and illness. Going from one moment in history to another and then back again, the film touches all the important bases in Piaf’s life: her childhood spent in a brothel in Normandy, her discovery singing for money on the street corners of Montmarte, the impresario who would give her the stage name La Môme Piaf (the little sparrow), her refinement by songwriter Raymond Asso who taught her to be a performer as well as a singer, the loves, the accidents and the tragedies that led her to a life of drug and alcohol abuse, and finally her illness and untimely death from cancer at the age of 47.
Along the way there are some terrific scenes including one where Piaf performs publicly for the first time following her training by Asso. You can see her transformation from simple singer to all-around performer as she begins somewhat timidly then slowly becomes more expressive, eventually giving herself over to the power of her song and overwhelming the audience who reward her with thunderous applause. The little sparrow with the big voice is born.
Though 5′ 8″ and a full foot taller than the diminutive Piaf, Marion Cotillard transforms herself physically through make-up, mannerisms, voice and body language. She then goes further, even capturing the spirit of the singer and nearly disappearing into the character. She inhabits Edith Piaf and it’s easy to forget at times you’re watching an act (though not always). It’s a great performance and seems an early favorite for an Oscar nomination. Though Piaf isn’t always a sympathetic character, Cotillard is compelling to watch.
The costar of the film has to be the music itself, hitting many of Piaf’s most memorable songs including the title song recorded in 1946. Special emphasis is placed on the English language version of La Vie en Rose however, which doesn’t have quite the same magic as the French original. I wonder if this was done only for US audiences. Fortunately, one of her later signature tunes, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No, I Regret Nothing), remains in its original French. The personal anthem, recorded late in Piaf’s career and similar to Sinatra’s My Way, is a perfect way to wrap up the film. In all the songs, Cotillard does a convincing job of lip-synching (both Piaf in the original recordings and also Jil Aigrot who sings Piaf’s earlier material), bringing expression and emotion to each performance worthy of the power of the voice behind the song.
Also of note is the fine production and costume design, credibly recreating France and the United States from the first half of the 20th century.
It’s too bad the impressionistic narrative doesn’t elevate the story told by La Vie en Rose. Perhaps the French who grew up with Piaf as a cultural touchstone would find the story to have more impact. Interestingly, there is a direct visual reference made early on in the movie to Billie Holiday whose life followed a similar trajectory an ocean away. I wonder if the story of the legendary American jazz and blues singer, told in the same fashion and with as powerful of a central performance, would be more meaningful to American audiences. Nevertheless, La Vie en Rose is a good film with a great performance by Marion Cotillard. I recommend it for that reason, and most especially to fans of La Môme and her music.
La Vie en Rose (La Môme): Czech Republic/UK/France 2007. Starring Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Paul Rouve and Gérard Depardieu. Directed by Olivier Dahan. Screenplay by Olivier Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman. Cinematography by Testsuo Nagata. Music score composed by Christopher Gunning. In French with English subtitles. 2 hours 20 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements. 3 stars (out of 5).