by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Our “feature” was La Vie en Rose — actually titled La Môme (“The Little One”) when it was released in France — since it’s a musical biopic of the great French singer Édith Piaf, who in her early years, when she was initially discovered by French cabaret owner Louis Leplée (played, almost inevitably, by Gérard Depardieu, reminiscent of those days in which he was so ubiquitous in French movies I wondered if the French legislature had passed a law mandating that he be in every film shot there), performed under the stage name “La Môme Piaf” — “The Little Sparrow” — and it was only later on that she reverted to her real first name (she was born Édith Giovanna Gassion) and became world-famous as Édith Piaf.
Written and directed by Olivier Dahan, La Vie en Rose won two Academy Awards, one for Marion Cotillard’s incandescent portrayal of Piaf and one for the makeup artists, Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald, who physically transformed her into Piaf. (A short film about the makeup job is included on the DVD as a bonus, and a bit of it was shown on the last Academy Award telecast — and it was quite impressive. According to imdb.com, the makeup on Cotillard as Piaf in the scenes just before her death took five hours to apply — about what Boris Karloff went through to play the Frankenstein monster.) Most of the singing heard in the film is Piaf’s own — from her commercial records — and though Jil Aigrot is given credit as Cotillard’s voice double, like Charles McPherson in Bird she was used only to fill in where Piaf was performing in an amateur context, the song was presented incomplete (as in the re-creation of a famous fiasco at the Olympia Theatre in Paris in 1960, when Piaf went onstage against her doctor’s orders, collapsed, insisted on finishing the performance and collapsed again on her second song) or for some other reason the film couldn’t use an actual Piaf recording.
The biggest flaw of the film is the way it leaps around incessantly from time to time; we begin with Piaf on tour in the U.S. in 1960, flash back to her childhood (which makes this film look like Diary of a Lost Girl: The Musical), flash-forward again to the late 1950’s (with Piaf sitting on a couch in front of a wall decorated with two large pictures of Billie Holiday, whom she cites as a kindred spirit — she then asks if her copies of Billie’s records have been sent to her hotel room as she requested) and keep bouncing back and forth in time. I could have seen the wisdom of presenting the film as a long flashback, anchored either in Piaf’s own reminiscences of her life (in 1958 she wrote an autobiography called The Wheel of Fortune) or, Citizen Kane-style, in reminiscences of her after her death — indeed, one powerful opening that could have been used was the one the BBC used in a 1970’s documentary that played here on PBS, in which they began with reproductions of the huge headlines in the French papers — “PIAF EST MORT” — with the sort of coverage they would have used if French president Charles de Gaulle had died around that time. Some of the time changes are signaled by printed titles (in type that would have been perfectly legible in a theatre but is hard to read on a normal TV screen) but others aren’t.
Dahan, who co-wrote the script with Isabelle Sobelman, presents Piaf’s life as unrelieved grimness — her brief idyll with French boxer Marcel Cerdan (the true love of her life — even though he was married to someone else and had three kids — until his death in a plane crash, for which Piaf blamed herself because, unwilling to wait to see him, she had urged him to charter a private plane …) is just about the only time the movie Piaf is even remotely happy — though given that the film sticks close to the facts of her life, and Piaf’s childhood is presented as so relentlessly Dickensian that Marilyn Monroe’s looks like a model of family stability by comparison, that’s not terribly surprising. Édith Giovanna Gassion is born in 1918 to a mother who’s a street singer — and who gets lured to Istanbul with the promise of work in nightclubs — and a father who’s serving in the French army in World War I. Dad gets out at the end of the war and reclaims his daughter, only to stick her in the home of his parents — and they in turn give her away to a whorehouse where one of the prostitutes, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), is the only one who even comes close to giving her any love and support. Nonetheless, since this is the only remotely stable environment she’s ever known, she’s reluctant to leave when daddy comes back and announces that he’s taking her and joining a circus (he’s a contortionist) — only he has a fight with the circus owner and ends up doing his act on the streets, and when he can’t get anyone to give him money he enlists her in it and tells her, “Do something.”
Accordingly, she sings “La Marseillaise” and becomes a hit — though she’s restricted to busking, first with her dad and then with her friend Mômone (Sylvie Testud), until 1935 when Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu), owner of Gerny’s cabaret, discovers her on the street and offers her a job. She opens at Gerny’s and is pretty much an instant hit, making records and getting written about in the entertainment papers of Paris — until six months later when Leplée is murdered. Piaf becomes a prime suspect in the case — the police believe that she infiltrated his operation by posing as a singer to get a job in his café and her (male) gangster friends from the streets killed Leplée for his money — and though they ultimately drop the case against her for lack of evidence (and, indeed, Leplée’s killing was never solved). Piaf revives her career thanks to the support (and songwriting skills) of Marguerite Monnot (Marie-Armelle Deguy) and the relentless drill-instructor coaching of Raymond Asso (Marc Barbé), who teaches her to sing with feelings and project real stage presence.
From there the movie leaps around in Piaf’s life, ignoring whole chunks of it (like her activities in World War II, where she was accused of collaborationism because — like Maurice Chevalier — she went to prisoner-of-war camps and entertained French prisoners; later her publicity people put out stories that she’d actually helped prisoners escape, shielded Resistance members and otherwise aided the fight against the occupation, but Piaf’s biographers remain divided over how much of this was real and how much was P.R. so she could resume her career without the taint of collaborationist allegations that dogged Chevalier after the war, and Dahan and Sobelman decided to duck the issue by not showing Piaf in World War II at all) but getting most of the details right, though there are some odd lacunae. For example, when Piaf makes her U.S. debut in 1947 the film shows her being received coolly by audiences and blasted by most of the critics — and the next time she’s shown in the U.S. she’s a major star as popular here as at home. Piaf is shown as diva to the max, constantly demanding and bitchy to her entourage, and she’s also shown taking drug injections without mentioning that she didn’t start to use morphine recreationally; she was one of those (like Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi) who were prescribed it medicinally and then ended up hooked.
Despite the jumpy non-continuity of this film and the relentlessly past-is-brown cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata, La Vie en Rose works largely on the strength of Cotillard’s performance (superbly matched not only with the singing of Piaf and Aigrot but also in terms of appearance and mannerisms with the two girls who play Piaf as a child, Manon Chevallier at age 5 and Pauline Berlet at age 10) and Dahan’s visual sense; he re-creates the period excellently if not absolutely flawlessly, and he really plunges us into Piaf’s peculiar life, showing her harnessing her off-stage traumas into on-stage vocal acting and making us feel both for her and for the people around her made miserable by her diva behavior and sheer mercurialism.
It’s a film that compares to the wretched Lady Sings the Blues much the way La Bamba compares to The Buddy Holly Story (a work of real artistry about a doomed entertainer vs. a cliché-ridden hack job); though the script of La Vie en Rose doesn’t avoid the clichés entirely, for the most part it has the ring of truth instead of dramatic contrivance, and Piaf’s anguish comes through marvelously in Dahan’s direction and Cotillard’s performance — though, as some of the imdb.com posters noted, she seems stronger as the older Piaf than the younger one (the scene of Piaf making her theatre debut, shot from behind in silhouette and with her wearing an unflattering hairdo that makes her look like a mushroom, is all too vivid a depiction of her embarrassment) and her performance reaches the height of pathos in the scenes at her country villa in October 1963 in which she’s doing little more than fending off her doctors, going through the motions of planning a comeback and waiting to die.
The DVD box copy blurbed the film as the greatest performance in history of a person playing a famous entertainer transforming herself into that person, and while I can think of at least two films that equal this one in that regard, one obscure (a 1970’s TV-movie biography of Marilyn Monroe with Catherine Hicks in the role) and one recent and quite well known (Ray, with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, winning an Academy Award for his performance as Cotillard did for hers), that doesn’t take away from the intensely moving, highly worthwhile drama Cotillard, Dahan and Sobelman have given us here. Édith Piaf vive!