La Vie en Rose (2007): Marion Cotillard in Oscar Caliber Performance as Edith Piaf

In the lead role of Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” Marion Cotillard gives such a towering and emotionally riveting performance that she single-handedly elevates the flawed biopic way above its melodramatic trappings and other shortcomings.

World-premiering at the Berlin Film Festival in February, “La Vie en Rose” was the opening night of “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema,” which played in New York in February at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, and also serves as the opening night of the similar series “City of Lights/City of Angels” in L.A. in April, which showcases new French films. The entrepreneurial Picturehouse will release the film June 6 in a platform mode, first in big cities like N.Y. and L.A., and then expanding.

At once old-fashioned and modernist, this rendition of the legendary French chanteuse, who died in 1963 at the age of 47, suffers from choppy, episodic treatment of Piaf’s life, jumping around from one time frame to another in an effort to cover her short but eventful life. As is the case of most biopics, the main issue is what episodes of a celeb’s rich life to include and what episodes to exclude.

From the streets of Paris’s cutthroat Belleville district to the dazzling limelight of New Yorks glamorous concert halls, Edith Piafs life was a constant battle to sing and survive, to live and love. Her magical voice and passionate romances and friendships with the era’s greatest names (Yves Montand, Jean Cocteau, Charles Aznavour, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland) made her a household name as much as her memorable live performances and powerful renditions of songs she made famous internationally, La Vie en Rose, Milord, Hymn to Love, Non, je ne regrette rien and many more.

Co-writer-director Olivier Dahan, who has been wanting to make a movie about Piaf for a long time, has decided not to follow a chronological order. Instead, he tries to illuminate Piaf’s life and artistry through two strategies. He dwells at length on the singer’s miserable childhood and adolescence, and then he continuously cuts from her last years (and last days) to past episodes and back again to more recent ones. “La Vie en Rose” unfolds as a series of cinematic and musical explorations of the larger-than-life legend Piaf.

Though co-written with a female writer, the film still displays a specifically male perspective on Piaf, thus tainting (and diminishing) the honorable attempt to truly illuminate her career and life. Occasionally, Dahan, like other male directors, succumbs to familiar biopic stereotypes, such as the suffering artist, the abused daughter, the dejected lover, the drug-addict. (See Oscar Alert for a list of Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated actresses who played suffering artists, be they singer, dancer, or writers).

It would have been most interesting to see what a female director would have done with the same material. When I addressed this issue in an interview with director Dahan, he claimed, “I don’t think there will be any difference if a woman directed this picture, because the subject is universal.” Even so, my feeling persists that while Dahan doesn’t look at Piaf from the outside, he still resorts to what we call in film studies the “male gaze.”

Rest assured that, whatever the narrative and dramatic flaws of “La Vie en Rose,” they are quickly forgotten as soon as the mature Piaf (played by Cotillard) appears on screen.

dith Giovanna Gassion was the daughter of a poor Italian mother, who sang on the streets, and circus acrobat and later soldier-father, who left his family when mobilized in WWI. She endured a sickly childhood, during which she suffered from blindness; the scene of recovering her vision is presented in the movie as a miracle.

When Edith’s parents separated, Edith’s harsh dad abducted her away from her mom and brought her to his own mother, who ran a brothel in the popular but morally dubious Pigalle district. In the brothel, Edith experiences for the first time a tender care from the resident prostitutes, particularly from Titine (an excellent Emmanuelle Seigner, also known as Roman Polanski’s wife).

Ironically, she benefits from this unusual community and female bonding, which is portrayed by Dahan in a realistically harsh yet nonjudgmental manner. Abused by their Madame, their male customers-and society at large–we are led to believe that the women took solace in channeling their maternal instincts into raising a girl who was desperate for love and attention. There’s a wonderful scene, when a doctor is called to the brothel to examine Edith. Asking, “Whose child she is” he is told bluntly: “Nobody’s.” Which, in fact, means “Everybody’s.”

In her adolescence, Edith sang on the streets for coins, living as a homeless vagabond. She’s blessed with a unique voice, whose qualities are emotional depth, huge volume (a French music critic wrote that despite a short frame and frail body, Piaf had big pipes), throaty sensuality, and distinct body posture while she sang; Piaf was known, among other things, for rolling her r like no singer of her time.

Piaf begins to attract the right attention, such as the promoter Louis Leple (Gerard Depardieu), who happens to be passing by. Luck and fate, alongside sheer talent, would continue to play crucial roles in Piaf’s life. Her gradual rise to stardom begins with getting a new name, Piaf, which is French slang for “the little sparrow.”

So far so good, and the first hour is straightforward and touching. But then melodrama, big-time melodrama, kicks in, and the movie begins to resemble a more conventional Hollywood biopic, say Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues.” This particular movie comes to mind, since Piaf spent quite a long time in the U.S. and admired American singers like Hollidayand Judy Garland–who poured their hearts and souls into their music. (It goes without saying that most of them died young and tragically; Garland was the same age as Piaf when she died of drug-overdose in 1969).

Shrewdly, director Dahan has decided to use Piaf’s own voice and original musical recordings, which are perfectly lip-synched by Cotillard. These seminal songs punctuate the narrative periodically, and often lift it to a level of immense enthusiasm and unbearable intensity. This is particularly the case of the last five minutes, in which we get to hear the signature song, “Je ne regrette de rien.” Too bad that many of songs are only partially performed or played.

Midway, the film describes Piaf’s love affair with the married Moroccan world-boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), who was tragically killed in a 1949 plane crash. In the film’s most devastating and heartbreaking scene, Piaf is frantically looking for the watch she had bought Marcel as a present, but can’t find it. No one in her entourage has the nerve to tell her the truth. Then, upon hearing about his death, Piaf gets completely hysterical and loses it for a while.

Like most biopics, “La Vie en Rose” is hampered by some inaccuracies, both minor and major. Though Piaf was a drug addict, the causes of her addiction were not just emotional needs or conditions for rendering heartfelt live performances, as the movie suggests. According to her biographers, Piaf suffered from pain after a near-fatal car crash in 1951.

Piaf’s energy and fortitude made her a superstar in Europe and the U.S.; she performed at Carnegie Hall several times, including a major comeback in the early 1960s. Despite pain from various physical ailments, emotional exhaustion, and personal tragedies, she was a real trouper and continued to perform, based on her sincere belief that a true artist sacrifices for her art to the bitter end. And bitter it was. (On more than one occasion, Piaf fainted on stage and had to be carried out in an ambulance).

Space doesn’t permit me to dwell at length on the actors surrounding the fabulous Cotillard, who’s bound to become an international star, despite the misfortune of appearing in some mediocre English-speaking films, such as Ridley Scott’s “A Good Year,” or Tim Burton’s “Big Fish.”

Clothilde gives a heartfelt performance as Anetta, Edith’s mother, who abandons her child for a career as a singing artist. Later on, poor and unemployed, she asks her daughter for money, and Edith despite bitterness helps herup to a point. Emmanuelle Seigner is excellent as Titine, the prostitute who becomes attached to Edith and functions as her mother. That Piaf was raised in a brothel is a fact, but Dahan expands Titine’s character, to show how prostitutes channeled their latent maternal sides into raising a little girl.

Of the males, boxing world champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), Piaf’s only true love according to this film, has the biggest part, and their long-distance romance occupies major chapters. Pascal Greggory plays the tough role of Piaf’s manager, Louis Barrier. He’s tough because she was not an easy performer to manage, but also because he was in love with Piaf and they dated for a while.

Jean-Paul Rouve, as Louis Gassion, a traveling showman, brings sensitivity and needed physically to the part. Sylvie Testud as Momone, Edith’s friend at the beginning of her career, is by turns funny and sad, accentuating the simple, unpretentious joie de vivre that marked Piaf’s youth. Grard Depardieu brings resonance to the role of Louis Leple, the man who gave Edith her big break.

Fans and connoisseurs of Pilaf may also fault “La Vie en Rose” for what’s missing from the narrative. In my interview with Cotillard, she revealed that Dahan had asked her if she wanted to add anything to the script, and the only thing she felt missing was Piaf’s marriage to Theo, a much younger man whose singing career she helped launch (the film makes a brief reference to Theo, without describing his identity, when Piaf is on her deathbed).

Absent from the current filmic text are Piaf’s participation in the French Resistance, and her relationships with some famous–and not so famous–men. Piaf’s friendships with vet performer Maurice Chevalier and her discovery of Yves Montand, whom she made part of her act and who was her lover for a while, are also not chronicled. (A good biopic should be made about Montand, who later became a legit singer on its own right and quite an accomplished screen actor, not to mention his marriage to actress Simone Signoret and his liberal, left-of-center politics.)

Larger historical events, such as WWII, which framed and obviously influenced Piaf’s life and art, are barely mentioned. I realize that no biopic can do justice to its subject, but there are also brief, weak scenes that could have been easily excised, such as an encounter with Marlene Dietrich. And Piaf’s death scene at the end, which like the others, is interrupted with flashbacks, may be too long, as well.

That said, it’s worth seeing “La Vie En Rose” for two reasons, for Marion Cotillard’s Oscar worthy performance, as well as a useful historical chapter of the kinds of enchanting singers and personalities and memorable songs that for many different reasons don’t exist anymore.

End Note

Piaf’s signature song, “La Vie en Rose,” was voted posthumously a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. Since the movie concludes on a high-emotional note with a rendition of that song, a title card to that extent would have been a nice touch.

Thanks to my assistant Ruth for conducting research about Piaf’s life