Susan Sontag wrote an essay called “Illness as Metaphor” it was inspired by her fight against breast cancer in the middle 1960s. Twenty years later she updated it with “AIDS as Metaphor” using roughly the same idea. Why start a review of a bio-pic of Edith Piaf with something that seems so very far removed? A biography of an artist (or anyone if you get down to it, but art is the focus here) is not worth pursuing unless the artist suffered. If they enjoyed the success with their talent during their lifetimes, they have to have lived hard lives. Elvis, Janis Joplin, and Billie Holiday are all singers who enjoyed success during their relatively brief lives but medicated their lives with alcohol and harder substances.
Ms. Piaf was just one in a line preceding her and following her who abused their bodies either because they didn’t care or because they thought their talent would always be useful and lucrative.
For what it matters, I’m listening to Edith while I write this.
In La Vie en Rose Director Oliver Dahan covers the brief life of “The Little Sparrow” who died at 47 after a great career and a greater amount of abuse of all sorts. The film opens with Edith at about 3. She is dirty and half neglected by her souse mother who sings on the streets for change. Her father returns from the war only to hand Edith off to his mother who ran a brothel. She became attached to at least one of the women and is crushed when her father comes to take her. The circus that employees her father abuses her in its own way. Her father quits the circus and becomes a street performer (he is a contortionist). Edith holds the hat for coins. The crowd wants something from her and with perfect pitch she sings La Marseillaise.
From her the film jumps between the following tropes: street singer, singer in a brothel, discovery by a night club owner, fall from popularity when he dies, having her career re-established by a martinet poet who nevertheless pulls even more from the already talented singer; more than one love affair with men, with alcohol and with heroin; making a splash of sorts in New York City, and two convalescences.
I want to end the review in a positive way so I will cover the problems at this moment. The film moves from parts of the adult Edith (played astoundingly well by Marion Cotillard) to the younger versions (three and ten or so) fairly well—it is easy enough to follow. However, once the focus is only on the adult Edith, the jumping around becomes so random that I felt like I was holding all the puzzle pieces but didn’t have time to put them all together and when the credits rolled I still only had the puzzle about half finished.
I don’t want to go into detail just in case (this is a bio-pic but I still do not want to give away some moments that maybe should be left unspoken). Two things occur, one in the middle and one at the very end, that are hugely significant life changing moments but apart from the few second spent with them, we are given nothing else. If the film weren’t already jumpy, I would say that the specific consequences wound up on the cutting room floor, but as explained, there is no reason to believe this. La Vie en Rose is told in such a sloppy manner, I would have stopped watching after the first hour.
The reason I didn’t was Mme Cotillard. From her days as a street singer in Paris to her death, Edith Piaf went from a healthy, though near alcoholic, late teen to a gnomish woman of 47 who looked at least 80 when she died. Arthritis, physical abuse, alcoholism, and drug abuse began to make the woman move from the healthy girl to a woman who was slouching heavily even when she was more healthy than not. Mme Cotillard played this with a consistency that I felt like a voyeur at times.
Charlize Theron played serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the film Monster (Ms. Theron got an Oscar for this role). It was evident that Ms. Theron watched the ample footage of the woman she was going to play that it was frightening just how effective she was. I can only assume the same of Mme Cotillard. Her speaking voice was as rough as one would expect given Edith’s early life. Her French was so vulgar (meaning rough) that I could barely understand her despite being fluent in the language. Her carriage matched what I have seen of Mme Piaf including the very odd way she had of holding her mouth due as much to teeth as just a signature look.
Imagine a bed sheet ripped apart in various ways. Now throw them down and straighten them out in random ways. The sheet is still there, but the pieces are not in order. Mme Cotillard represented the idea of the sheet as a whole while Mr. Dahan decided to focus as much on what was missing as what was there. Apologizes if this metaphor is stretched or trite; but I think you can see it as an apt French type metaphor (smiley).
Obviously the film is peppered with her songs (and parts of songs during rehearsals or as background music). My gripe here is that there were not enough, but I doubt I am alone here and more focus must be given to the life than the work in a film like this
I don’t want to slight the other actors, but, honestly, they really didn’t matter. The most and least that can be said is that they did a good job as being talking props who didn’t get in the way.
The film ends with the song you expect. I give nothing away here based on logic alone; however, how we get from the inception to the performance of Je ne regrette rein was worth me watching it three times.
I can only give the film a tepid recommendation and I hesitate there. La Vie en Rose is over 2 hours long and often so difficult to follow that I gave up trying at times. Watch the star’s performance and if you like it, then stick it out. If you are not impressed, don’t bother going through the rest of the film.
What did you think of this review?