Even if you’ve never listened to a single song by Edith Piaf, it’s impossible to be unmoved by this biopic — in all probability the film will have you rushing to buy a CD as soon as the lights come on.
Gorgeously lit and shot, and showcasing a superb performance by Marion Cotillard (“A Good Year”) as Piaf, it is defined by the foremost important ingredient of a good biopic: the director’s fascination for his subject.
Olivier Dahan is better known as a maker of music videos than feature films (“Crimson River 2″ in 2004 was his last foray) but “La vie en rose” (released in Japan as “Edith Piaf ai no Sanka”) demonstrates a confident command over the material and a deft, manipulative style that takes the viewer on an emotional roller-coaster ride of heavenly highs and wallowing-in-mud lows. But then this was what Piaf’s life was like; from the moment she was born (on a back street in Belleville, Paris), to her death at the age of 47, her life never ceased to be anything but crammed with drama, melodrama, passion and tragedy.
When she was 3 years old and living in her grandmother’s brothel, she lost her eyesight. She got it back three years later during a pilgrimage to Lisieux. She had love affairs, marriages and a divorce, and she was involved in multiple traffic accidents that led to her being put on morphine, which turned her into a drug addict. She was befriended by Marlene Dietrich and Jean Cocteau, and during World War II she sang for Nazi officers as part of a secret Resistance effort. On the day of her death, all transportation stopped in Paris and people took to the streets in mourning. And those incidents are just the tip of the rocky, jagged iceberg that was life of Piaf, aka “The Little Sparrow.”
As befitting this nickname, Dahan’s story darts back and forth from one incident to another, one time frame to another. He resorts to making things up if hard facts in the Piaf story are lacking, like the recovery of her eyesight. (Piaf had insisted in interviews that she owed the miracle to St. Therese of Lisieux.) To take full advantage of this insistence, Dahan inserts the presence of golden-hearted prostitute Titine (Emanuelle Seigner), who scrounges up the cash for a pilgrimage to Lisieux, prays like mad for little Piaf and voila: she can see! Manipulative, yes, but there’s no denying the effectiveness.
There’s Piaf singing on the streets for pennies and being discovered by cigar-sucking club owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who drives up on the cobblestones in a swanky car, alights with a majestic swirl of his splendid coat and tells her she has the makings of a star. Later, he’s murdered, and Piaf is arrested but released due to lack of evidence — one of the more sinister incidents in her life that was never quite cleared up. And then there she is with French champion boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean Pierre Martins), widely known as the love of her life, who was killed in a plane crash en route to New York where he was supposed to meet her. The film is a collage of the chunks and morsels of the singer’s life, structured so that Piaf recalls these scenes on her deathbed. Why he chose this rather obvious ploy is perhaps his way of paying homage to the singer; Piaf herself was a master media manipulator and relentless self-promoter, who used her childhood hardships to full advertising advantage. If she had been around to make an autobiographical movie, this death-bed reminiscing was just the line of storytelling she would have chosen — by all accounts Piaf was a clear-eyed businesswoman with a keen sense of the tragicomic.
None of it would have worked, however, without the presence of Cotillard, whose pretty face is rendered unrecognizable through layers of Piaf makeup, complete with trademark frizzed hair and receding hairline, which climbed to the top of her cranium during the last years of her life. Cotillard goes for the role with sheer guts and amazing concentration; she captures the indomitable spirit and crystalline stage-presence of the diminutive woman whose voice was an incomparable collage of fragility, strident strength, vulnerability and defiance. She could turn a packed concert hall into a bubbling, weeping heap, clamoring for more. She could inject meaning into her music like no other singer yet remain strangely detached — even when she sang the famed “Non, je ne regrette rien (No Regrets),” she never allowed herself the indulgence of emoting.
Piaf was professional to the marrow — her songs reflected her life without exposing who she actually was. But then, between the engagements, recordings and promotions, punctuated by physical accidents and failed love relationships, it’s likely she never had the luxury to hone any other side of herself except the professional. This is what Dahan, underneath all the decor and trappings, exposes with sincere sympathy and reverence.