Marion Cotillard delivers a memorable performance as French chanteuse Édith Piaf in the uneven biographical movie LA VIE EN ROSE. Anyone who cares about great acting should rush out to see her work, which if there is any justice, will be remembered at year's end come awards time. Her portrayal of "the Little Sparrow" is one of the richest, most detailed, amazing and brilliant interpretations of a role.
Olivier Drahan, who co-wrote and directed this lavish if overlong and somewhat sketchy film, has stated that he wanted to make a drama about an artist and his/her motivations. By chance, he was browsing in a shop and found a book about Piaf, giving him his subject. Undaunted by earlier film and stage biographies, Drahan forged on.
He and co-writer Isabelle Sobelman opted to tell Piaf's story in a non-linear fashion with scenes serving as counterpoints. This device can sometimes perplex viewers, however, although the makeup and some other verbal and visual clues are there for the audience to determine the approximate time period. Still, some audience members who saw the film at the 2007 "Rendez-Vous with French Cinema" voiced their bewilderment. Despite this flaw, most viewers were entranced by Cotillard's masterful work
LA VIE EN ROSE opens in New York City in 1959 when Piaf was at the height of her renown. There are flashbacks to her Dickensian childhood. Raised in Belleville, she was often neglected by her young mother who was trying to make a living by singing in the streets. Eventually, young Édith (portrayed by Manon Chevallier) is left with her neglectful maternal grandmother. She is rescued by her father (Jean-Paul Rouve) who had been a soldier during World War I, but the child is then deposited at his mother's home -- which happens to be a whorehouse. The child bonds with one of the prostitutes, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), before having those ties severed when her father reappears after several years. He works as a street performer but the now 10-year old Édith (Pauline Burlet) draws a larger crowd and more money when she sings. After fighting with her father as a teenager, she strikes out on her own. Ten years later, Édith (now portrayed by Cotillard) and her buddy Simone or Mômone (Sylvie Testud) are spotted on the street corner.
Her benefactor is Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu effective in what is essentially a cameo) who grooms her for stardom and give her the moniker "La Môme Piaf." When Leplée turns up murdered, Piaf's career is almost ruined by scandal and implications she was somehow involved. Like many artists, though, she was able to reinvent herself and by exploiting contacts, she begins her ascent to stardom. Along the way are the various pitfalls that plagued her and many others -- ill-fated love affairs (like that with Marcel Cerdan, portrayed by singer Jean-Pierre Martins), accidents, drugs and alcohol. By the time she died at the age of 47, Piaf looked like a woman twice that age.
But that glorious voice! While Cotillard has sung on screen in other films, here she lip syncs to Piaf recordings or to vocal mimic Jil Aigrot who was hired to sing Piaf's earlier songs (such as "Mon légionnaire"), since the existent recordings were deemed unusable. Aigrot captures the youthful verve and her work is nearly indistinguishable from the actual recordings of Piaf that are included.
Again, I cannot say enough about Marion Cotillard. From the moment she assumes the role until her final scenes, she is nothing short of mesmerizing. Her performance is detailed and multi-faceted. One can already see the older Piaf in the young girl of twenty as she hunches her shoulders and walks with a distinctive gait. Even when Piaf is demanding, she is charismatic. Cotillard tears into the role and takes the audience along for a memorable ride.
In the immediate aftermath of viewing the movie, I was so taken by Cotillard's work that I was more forgiving of the film's flaws. As time went on, I began to reflect on the choices the filmmakers made and wondered why they opted to include some things and omit others. Piaf's acting career is barely mentioned (but for a brief reference to Jean Cocteau) and her associations with Yves Montand and others rate barely a mention.
Despite its flaws, there is still much to admire. In addition to Cotillard, there are fine performances from Emmanuelle Seigner, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, and Caroline Reynaud. The production design of Olivier Raoux, the costumes of Marit Allen and the cinematography of Tetsuo Nagata are all exemplary. Drahan attempts to put a new spin on some of the tried and true clichés and in some cases what he does works well. Still, it all comes down to the lead actress and Cotillard's work is among the best I've seen by an actress in years. She deserves an A+ even if the overall film doesn't live up to her standards.
Rating: B MPAA Rating: PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements Running time: 140 mins.
Sylvie Testud as Momone (standing) and Marion Cotillard as Édith Piaf(seated) in LA VIE EN ROSE