Uplifted beyond its merits by a stunning performance from Marion Cotillard, the humdrum Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose jogs obligingly along with Piaf the legend rather than the woman. It’s not hard to do, given the fuzzy borders between Piaf’s undeniably scarred life and her relentless gift for revisionist autobiography. By any measure, France’s favorite songbird had a lousy childhood. Shuttled from pillar to post of Paris’ Belleville slum district by her mother, an alcoholic café singer and part-time hooker, she was dumped as a toddler by her father (a circus contortionist) on his mother, who ran a brothel. There’s no question that the serial abandonments of Piaf’s early life laid down a recipe for self-destruction that dogged her through her years singing for scraps on the streets. Existential panic clung to her through a meteoric rise to fame and evolution into a soused party animal with scads of unreliable lovers who made her miserable and vice versa. Two tumultuous marriages didn’t help, nor did Piaf’s addiction to morphine after a serious car crash. Dragging herself from one performance to another long after she should have quit, at age 47 she finally succumbed — defiantly, but famously with no regrets — to cancer in 1963. If that’s not a movie, I don’t know what is.
Piaf may have been a brawling mess who parlayed the pain she wore on her sleeve into a glittering career as France’s balladeer of heartbreak. To this day her gravel voice thrills me to my core, but she was also a rabid self-mythologizer who liked to play up her childhood travails. An unblushing fan, writer-director Olivier Dahan has bought the package and then some. Mercifully, he doesn’t show us the street urchin being born on a sidewalk, as Piaf colorfully insisted despite evidence that she took the usual hospital route into this world. Still, not even Piaf would have cooked up La Vie en Rose’s fictional warm-hearted tart (Emmanuelle Seigner) who nurses little orphan Edith through a period of temporary blindness (unconfirmed, though she suffered a far less glamorous conjunctivitis) and drums up sufficient funds to dispatch her on a pilgrimage, where St. Theresa provides a miracle cure that Dahan hands us without so much as a cocked eyebrow.
A less ingenuous filmmaker might have brought this off as melodrama — Piaf’s life as seen through her own eyes. Instead, La Vie en Rose trudges dutifully from one costumed “defining” event to the next, building up to a kind of Piaf theme park that plays out like a bad parody of Dickens or Balzac. Slack-jawed proles wearing artistically grimy faces drop everything to gawk as the tiny waif belts out “La Marseillaise” on a street corner, followed by copious shots of rapt bejeweled audiences in Paris’ cavernous Olympia hall once Piaf, discovered by a Svengali nightclub owner (Gérard Depardieu), finds the voice and the style that sealed her phenomenal success.
Quite aside from her towering vocal range and her forcefulness as a populist interpreter of the French chanson, Piaf was an instinctive social leveler (she hobnobbed with Cocteau, but the love of her life was the married middleweight boxer and pig farmer Marcel Cerdan) who became a unifying romantic voice for war-torn France. But there remains the murky and still-unresolved question of whether Piaf, along with her pal Maurice Chevalier, was a collaborator who happily performed for Nazi military bigwigs during the occupation, or a clandestine protector of the French resistance. Reluctant to muddy his diva with complication, Dahan sticks with neurosis. Like many people who grow up deprived of emotional stability, Piaf seems to have never developed enough of an inner life to sustain her through adversity. Her life was lived externally, and the yawning chasm between the terrified child she was and the grandstanding diva who exasperated her most loyal friends is precisely what makes Piaf so moving, and so scary.
Dahan is queasy about how far he wants to go with this, but Cotillard takes him all the way. The actress doesn’t do her own singing — who, after all, could replicate the soaring rasp that burst fully formed out of that tiny body? In a sense, every scene in La Vie en Rose is a holding pattern for the next ballad, which would reduce the movie to a musical were it not for Cotillard’s command of her character. Though she’s far prettier than Piaf at any age and has to be heavily made up to come close to the bug-eyed jolie-laide that was la Môme, Cotillard has not only her fluttery mannerisms down, but the fragile sense of self that kept Piaf always on the edge. If Piaf was an empty shell, she knew how to put on a show, on and off stage. Channeling the shell, the performer and the whole shambles in between, Cotillard raises France’s poor, beloved chanteuse clean out of mundane pathos and into the ruined grandeur she deserves.
LA VIE EN ROSE | Written and directed by OLIVIER DAHAN | Produced by ALAIN GOLDMAN | Released by Picturehouse | ArcLight and Royal