Photograph by Bruno Calvo
Strike up the band: Gerard Depardieu and Marion Cotillard celebrate the new year in 'La vie en rose.'
A new biography of Edith Piaf lingers on the hard times and bad habits
By Richard von Busack
I HAVE NO IDEA what kind of music people are deflowering each other to these days, but it's probably not Edith Piaf. The idea of putting on "Milord," darkening the lights and laissez vous faire is probably as antique as darkening the lights in the first place, as opposed to keeping them on and uploading the whole mess to YouTube. The film La môme (The Kid) has been retitled La vie en rose for the American market after Piaf's bit hit; it tries to introduce her work to a new generation using the tried and true Behind the Music approach.
Olivier Dahan, Belgian videomaker/director, covers the tragedy-laden life (1915–1963) of the singer, played by Marion Cotillard. Edith Gassion was second-generation showbiz—third, if you take into account the fact that her grandmother ran a brothel.
Plagued by spectacular ill health, the performer was done in by rich living, much substance abuse and a group of internal organs that simultaneously resigned in protest. If she overimbibed, she had an excellent reason—not just heartbreak but a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis.
Dahan alternates between the origin story and the endgame. The film tries to re-create the effects of Piaf's selective memory. But it's like taking the heroine and shaking her like a bug in a jar, between past and present.
La vie en rose begins with the child Piaf bellowing out "La Marseillaise" when passers-by aren't stopping to watch her father's street acrobat act. After he is swept up into the Great War, Piaf is relocated to the Normandy whorehouse run by her grandmother. Edith is befriended by one of the ladies, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), who gives one of the few performances in the film that leaves an afterimage.
Growing up in the brothel, Edith suffers from maladies—she's struck by temporary blindness, which is healed, as Piaf later claimed, by the grace of St. Teresa. (The Catholic magical-realism of this story isn't enhanced by the saint's appearance in some gold sparkles in the night sky; what might have been charmingly quaint turns a little like Tinker Bell's appearance.)
Piaf rises fast with the help of the impresario Louis Lepleé (Gerard Depardieu); he refines her act and teaches her more mainstream stage deportment than the apache-esque cabaret act she'd been performing. But he too drops out of her life—violently.
Post–World War II success in America means little: "They don't get me, and I don't get them," says this version of Piaf, who in real life played the Ed Sullivan show eight times. Obviously, somebody got her. In New York, she meets the boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), with whom she formed the most serious liaison of her life, despite two marriages. Martins carries the part with as little worry as Dean Martin might have done. His scenes are quite appealing, maybe because with him the heroine is free of pain for a short time.
Cotillard shows us the imperiousness of Piaf when she was famous, but there's a lot to be said for the less-fraught moments of Piaf's legend. The incident, for example, of a soldier in haste to return to camp dropping by to give Piaf the song "L'accordéoniste." It's as close as this movie gets to mentioning World War II; the elimination of the war seems slightly lunatic, like cutting the war out of a Bob Hope biopic, for instance.
Dahan is at his clumsiest handling the legendary figures in Piaf's life. During the walk-on by Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Sihol), one expects something memorable will be said. In Marlene Dietrich's ABC, the actress's book of received ideas and opinions, Dietrich called Piaf "the sparrow become Phoenix." But what we have onscreen is something on the lines of "Edith, meet Marlene."
Dahan is nervous about the most golden parts of Piaf's legend—her resistance heroism in the war and the funeral that paralyzed Paris—stressing instead all the symptoms of all her maladies. Dahan's plan of attack is more than warts and all—it's like warts and nothing but. In the worst moment, Cotillard is decked out in thoroughly grotesque old-age makeup, with shaved eyebrows and doddering around in a copper-colored wig. She's not just simian, she's orangutangian, a mate for Dr. Zaius.
Oddly, the film works best when it does what it's pretending not to do: be a straightforward musical biopic. What succeeds are the moments executed in the manner of ancient musicals—a slight figure fixed in a vivid blue-white spotlight, framed by a proscenium arch with curtains behind her. We do get what we came for in short bursts: the music, ably lip-synced and (happily) without rhyming translation in the subtitles. (Jil Aigrot does Piaf in the more impromptu moments of Piaf's singing; in the concert sequences, the voice is Piaf's.)
If Piaf wasn't pretty (she was prettier than this film makes her out), neither was her voice. In the raw husk of it and the burring trilled "r"s, there was a bray, a wail. Her international hit described a life seen en rose, as if viewed through rose-colored glasses, but it was sung in a voice belonging to someone who knew what it was like when the whole world was black. This movie is more like La vie en noir. By looking askance at Piaf for her peasant clumsiness, her vices and her irritability, the film is tone deaf to the nuances of a life.
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