La Vie en Rose (2007)
Thank God for Marion Cotillard.
La Vie en Rose chronicles the life of one Edith Piaf from her impoverished roots in the early 1900s where she was neglected by her mother, raised in a brothel by the ladies on payroll, and then taken away to Paris by her carnie father where she discovers her gift of voice while busking for pocket change. Then she grows up, she gets discovered by a club owner while busking for booze money, she headlines her first show, quickly becomes the biggest act in town, and lets the spotlight inflate her ego to the size of the Hindenburg. So she’s at the top of her game, she’s performing around the world and everyone knows her name, but then she gets addicted to morphine after her body becomes violently arthritic and things start to spiral downward for our Little Sparrow.
I don’t know about you guys, but I before I saw this movie, I knew as much about Edith Piaf as she knew about me. With the exception of Sigur Rós, I can’t really think of any non-English speaking acts out there that I’m a fan of or would be able to name off the top of my head even if someone were to play me their greatest hits, and as it just so happens, Piaf very much fell into that unfortunate category. Isn’t that so American of me? Anyway, being the Billie Holiday worshiper that I am and being that Piaf was very much in the same boat in that regard, I don’t know what took me so long ’cause I’ve been missing out.
As one would imagine, the music is very much a cornerstone and saving grace to this movie. It should go without saying that this movie probably wouldn’t exist if Piaf couldn’t sing worth a damn, but she totally can, she’s a legend for a reason even if it took me a good long while to come to that realization, and every time this movie dipped down to a 6, Piaf would take the stage, she’d start up those pipes of hers and I’d find myself with a minor case of goosebumps. Beautiful stuff, can’t beat music in movies when it shakes you to the bone, and this movie’s got it in spades.
Then again, without Marion Cotillard playing Piaf, this movie wouldn’t have come close to a 7.
The thing is, Edith Piaf doesn’t come off as a very likable person. There are brief moments at the beginning and end of the plot that provide wonderful little glimpses of someone that you would want to spend time with, enjoy a bottle of wine or three with and talk about life on the beach with, but alas, I refer to those moments as brief for a reason. Every other impression she makes is that of a true diva who proudly walks over those who are only trying to help her, considers herself the greatest thing that’s ever happened to the world musically or otherwise, and that’s never a good look on anyone now, is it?
Granted, she had a tough life that I can’t even pretend to empathize with, but if it weren’t for her voice, Piaf’s not the kind of person I would ever want to spend two hours with.
On top of that is the way writer/director Olivier Dahan decided to tell her story. For some reason, the plot depicting Piaf’s life is a non-linear one and continually jumps back and forth between major periods of her life without any real rhyme or reason outside of the fact that they all happened. It’s an approach that could have worked but ends up adding nothing to the big picture aside from confusion as to why this story couldn’t have been told chronologically.
The other issue is that there are a lot of people who shuffle in and out of Piaf’s life who all seem to play integral roles in her progression from a borderline orphan to the pride of France, but they all come and go so fast that we hardly get a chance to care about them. And that’s a shame because a couple of them even come back later on in her life after dropping off completely, Piaf clearly considers them some of the most important people in her life, but that’s all news to us since we only got to know them for a good ten minutes before they faded back into the herd until further notice. Just a poorly structured script that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the audience to give a crap about anyone but Piaf even though it clearly wants us to.
But I digress. Back to Piaf.
One of the most significant things about Cotillard’s performance goes right back to Piaf’s off-putting nature: the fact that you actually do want to spend time with her simply because the woman portraying her is so damn good. It’s weird writing about how much I liked Piaf’s voice when it’s Cotillard singing all along, but she really does look and sound the part to a tee and that always impresses my socks off in biopics. So the voice is a major selling point, another being that Cotillard is gorgeous to begin with and the more she starts to look like Piaf from one decade to the next, the more striking the transformation becomes. Man, the makeup crew here totally deserved the Oscar they won for the way they aged this girl from natural stunner to, for lack of a better phrase, a clown with sciatica. It’s the continually receding hairline, the subtle physical changes from year to year, and finally the way Cotillard is hobbling and shaking around like a leaf in a twister during Piaf’s last days that really puts it over the edge.
Not an easy character to embody, not an easy character to make compelling, but Cotillard blows it out of the water in what is very much one of the best female performances of the past decade.
Ultimately, La Vie en Rose could have been a much better movie, but what makes it at all worth watching is Cotillard. I’m always a sucker for a bit role from the great Gerard Depardieu, but since he also fits into that complaint of mine about characters who make a big splash one minute and are gone for good the next, I am left a sad fan. All the same, for a movie that’s otherwise relatively uninteresting, I can’t say enough about how good Cotillard is and how I completely understand the way she’s quickly becoming such a Hollywood heavyweight. She makes the movie and makes Piaf’s life far more engaging than it would have been with someone else at the reigns.