Actress Marion Cotillard gives the very definition of a “wow” performance as famed French songbird Édith Piaf in the familiar, but none the less impressive import La Vie En Rose. Following hot on the heels of El Cantante and in the long tradition of the “fall from grace musical biopic,” the film gives us the troubled start-to-finish life story of a European icon.
Writer/director Olivier Dahan (La Vie Promise) cracks Piaf’s life apart like a frozen chocolate bar and serves it up in disjointed shards—a decision that may confuse those who like their biopics in the linear vein, but one that renders the rather rote storyline all the more intriguing.
We know how Piaf started off—abused by her alcoholic mother and abandoned by her circus performer father at a French whorehouse during World War I. We know how Piaf ended up—crippled and horribly worn-out before the age of 50 thanks to her years of drug and alcohol abuse. La Vie En Rose starts with these two bookends and sketches in the intervening years to show us the assorted trials, tribulations and heartbreaks that made up the tragic life of this iconic performer.
Piaf’s story begins in near-Dickensian territory. After the Great War, young Édith’s father returns to reclaim her from the doting prostitutes who have cared for her through thick and thin and a three-year bout of blindness (possibly brought on by the condition known as keratitis and possibly cured by the miraculous intervention of St. Thérèse). This sets up the pattern for the rest of Édith’s life—again and again, she is torn away from the people and places she loves.
Cotillard takes over for Édith when she hits her teenage years in the early ’30s. The actress (probably best known in America for the films Big Fish and A Very Long Engagement) does an amazing physical job of aging herself over the years. (Unlike Jennifer Lopez in El Cantante, who couldn’t be bothered to put on so much as a gray wig for her 30-plus years of aging.) Cotillard makes it easy for audiences to tell what stage of history we’re in at a glance. Despite the time-hopping, each era of Piaf’s life is visibly distinct from the others. Her final decrepitude, in fact, is a shock to behold.
The film has gotten a decent amount of criticism for its gloomy subject matter. Admittedly, the film is about another musical icon who wasted much of her life and passed away before her time thanks to a lethal cocktail of drugs, alcohol and generally bad behavior. But honestly, La Vie En Rose doesn’t dwell on those seedy aspects. Certainly, they are there. But at an exhaustive 140 minutes, La Vie En Rose covers nearly every intimate detail of Piaf’s troubled life.
Sure, we see the traumatic childhood, the tangled love affairs, the toxic fame. But we see how those things affected her life, her decisions, her art. Thanks in no small part to the uncompromising efforts of Cotillard, we catch a glimpse of what’s hiding beneath Piaf’s skin. The weight of this unhappy life is firmly etched on her character’s face by film’s end. It’s in smaller, less obvious moments, though, that Cotillard’s skill really shines through. There’s one small scene in particular, in which Piaf bumps into a laudatory Marlene Dietrich. For a brief moment, in Cotillard’s eyes you can see the giddy, star-struck glee of an innocent young girl—something Piaf rarely had the luxury of being.
Dahan does squeeze out one cliché montage of newspaper clippings and record covers to indicate Piaf’s rise to fame, but steers clear of the most egregious sins the genre has to offer. That Piaf’s life was filled to overflowing with dark moments is hardly a revelation—anyone who has heard her champagne-soaked, thickly Gallic form of balladeering knows this lady lived it up harder than most blues musicians.
What La Vie En Rose succeeds most in dramatizing is that Piaf embraced it all with a fierce “damn the torpedoes” attitude. As the film closes out, Piaf uses her growling voice and endlessly rolling consonants to belt out her signature tune—not the ironic titular ditty, but the defiant statement of purpose “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No, I Regret Nothing).” Like “My Way,” recorded a decade later by Frank Sinatra, the song is a fitting summation of a life lived, if not well, then at least not by half.