I wouldn't be comfortable calling La Vie en Rose, the life of Edith Piaf, one of the great biographical films. What I'm sure of is that Marion Cotillard's portrayal of Piaf, from Piaf's early teens until Piaf died at 47, is one of the most extraordinary performances I've ever seen on a movie screen. Cotillard remakes herself into this willful, self-destructive, selfish, generous, melodramatic, tiny creature -- Piaf was only 4' 8" tall -- of dramatic vocal genius.
Piaf grew up on the streets of Paris. Her life was one crises after another, some of her making, some not. We meet her as a child, when her mother abandoned her. Her father, a soldier in WWI and a contortionist in small traveling circuses, disappeared for long periods of time. At one point before puberty she lived for quite a while with her paternal grandmother, who ran a brothel. She helped her father work at one of those circuses. They survived as street entertainers in Paris. She finally had enough and struck out on her own, making a little money singing on the streets, giving much of it to a local pimp for protection. She had a child who died of meningitis. When she was 20 she was discovered by an "impresario" who ran a nightclub. Louis Leplee renamed her Piaf. When he was murdered in what seemed to be a gang hit, she was put through the public wringer by the police and the French press. Her fame grew. During WWII she agreed to sing at POW camps so the French prisoners could be photographed with Piaf by the Germans as evidence of how happy the prisoners were. Piaf was a member of the Resistance. She took copies of the photographs and arranged for the Resistance to make false passports for 150 prisoners. She returned to the camps with the passports and managed to have them distributed to the prisoners under the eyes of the Germans. She was either fearless or willfully fatalistic. The Germans never seemed to realize what this tiny, internationally known singer was doing. After the war, she was acclaimed. She had famous love affairs, including Yves Montand and French middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan. Cerdan, whom she loved, was killed in a plane crash. She drank heavily, took drugs, and her health continued to deteriorate. She suffered from rheumatism, severe arthritis, a liver that barely functioned. She became addicted to morphine and continued to drink heavily.
And she sang and sang and sang. She could make a child's jump-rope song sound like an obsession to lost love. Piaf had a big voice and she knew how to use it. She preferred simple black dresses and a spotlight when she performed, creating a highly dramatic image of this small, sad face and her two expressive hands. Her songs were about love, loss, death, memories, hope that was glimmering and hope that had died. She had a vibrato that seemed to throb in the heart. When she died at 47, the drink and the drugs, the losses and tragedies, the self-destructive willfulness and the arthritis had turned her into the ruined shell of the teen-ager who sang on Paris streets. Not a life I would have wanted, even if I'd traded for her talent, but it was her life and it became a huge melodrama powered by her unique voice.
For Americans, perhaps her most familiar song is La Vie En Rose. With Mack David's soppy lyrics, there was a time when it couldn't be avoided, including Piaf's French version. But the song that evokes the most memories, and the one that closes the movie and summarizes her life, is the song Piaf first sang just three years before her death, "Non, je ne regrette rien."
Non, rien de rien, Non, je ne regrette rien, Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait, Ni le mal, tout ça m'est bien égal. Non, rien de rien, Non, je ne regrette rien, C'est payé, balayé, oublié, Je me fous du passé...
The song roughly translates as "I don't regret a thing. What has happened has happened and has been paid for. Neither the good done to me, nor the bad; to me, they're all the same. No, I regret nothing. Because my life, because my joys, today, begin with you."
The movie La Vie en Rose is dramatically and almost lushly photographed. We don't have a simple linear story line; we keep moving back and forth among the times of her life. The juxtapositions between the child, the girl, the young woman, the star, and the prematurely aged force of talent and willfulness, makes us pay attention, but it also gives us some idea of the chaos of her life.
Marion Cotillard is incredible as she makes us believe in this self-destructive and fascinating person. We forget about Cotillard and can only focus on this tiny body, big voice and an odd, appealing face made up of huge eyes, blood red lips, and plucked, thin-lined eye-brows.
Self-destruction after awhile makes me impatient. There are too many things to do to waste one's life on a diet of willfulness and selfishness, even if one is gifted with huge talent. I was mesmerized by Piaf, her life and her songs, but at times I felt like telling her to ease up on the drama. I suppose, given her life, much should be forgiven or at least understood. As Roger Ebert has said, "Nothing in her early life taught her to count on permanence or loyalty. What she counted on was singing, champagne, infatuation and morphine."