Nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival this year, La Vie En Rose is the latest in a series of cinematic explorations of the larger than life French singing legend, Edith Piaf. While resonating with the unique breadth and depth of the soulful disarming voice of this nearly mythic chanteuse, the male scrutiny of her more earthbound social and psychological struggles as a woman in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie En Rose diminishes the potential to truly illuminate her life on screen, beyond conventional female stereotypes.
In today’s world, there’s the phenomenon of American Idol that catapulted Jennifer Hudson from obscurity and humble origins into a speedy rise to stardom and mass adulation. But in the early part of the last century, a long shot bid for artistic recognition among the working-class poor entailed trying your luck singing in the streets and passing a hat around. Which is precisely the trajectory to ambivalent fame that was the sole prospect for Edith Piaf.
Born into the Parisian underclass, the daughter of a pauperized Italian mother who sang on the streets and circus acrobat turned soldier father who had to leave the family to their own devices when sent off to fight in WWI, Edith Giovanna Gassion (Marion Cotillard) endured a neglected and sickly childhood where she suffered blindness and then deafness in temporary succession. When her parents became estranged, Edith’s harsh, ill-tempered dad scooped her away from her distraught mom and dumped her off at his own mother’s – who ran a brothel in the notorious Rue Pigalle – for a supposedly better environment.
In fact, Edith experiences for the first time in her life, the vivacious and tender nurturing of the resident prostitutes among this unorthodox matriachal community. Who themselves are overcome by the discovery of their own dormant maternal instincts in a life barren of affection, and they smother little Edith with boundless devotion. But reality does scorch the child’s senses intermittently nevertheless, as she observes the brutalization of the women by perverse male customers – and a doctor tending to her ailments who inquires whose child she is, and is told matter of factly: ‘Nobody’s.’
Adolescence finds Edith a rebellious and scrappy street vagabond, singing on the streets for spare change like her mother before her, to avoid the sole alternatives for Parisian working-class women on their own – the brothel or exploitation in a factory. Her deeply sensuous, sultry throaty voice quickly brings her to the attention of a promoter passing by (Gerard Depardieu), and her ascendancy to stardom with a new name (Piaf, slang for Little Sparrow), and not without plenty of personal tragedy along the way, plays out with determined inevitability.
Director Olivier Dahan wisely chooses to place Piaf’s mesmerizing original recordings, lip-synched by the extraordinary Cotillard, as the centerpiece at the heart of the story. Because the conceptualizing of Piaf’s life falls far short of an engaging or revealing portrait. Rather, Dahan dabbles in the usual female stereotypes – the whining, needy doomed female controlled by her emotions who alternately suffers from reckless defiance of male domination and authority, and the unhealthy woman-child psychologically dependent on male acceptance and love. Regarding her love affair with the married Moroccan world boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) who was tragically killed in a 1949 plane crash, Piaf comes off as pathetic and pledging enthusiastically to the sacrifice her own needs, while Cerdan seems simply flattered.
Though Piaf was a drug addict, the primary underlying cause was not emotional defect as implied in La Vie En Rose, but rather crippling chronic pain resulting from a 1951 car crash. Indeed, Piaf’s energy and fortitude made her a superstar in Europe as well as the United States (where she was in adulation of Billie Holiday), and she continued to perform into advanced age despite the ravages of multiple ailments.
Completely, disappointingly missing in particular from the overly melodramatic, surface flow of experiences in La Vie En Rose, is Piaf’s heroic participation in the French Resistance during WWII. Or for that matter, any of the tumultuous historical events of the last century, which surely impacted upon Piaf, logically contextualized her life experience, and informed her art.
Also absent from the film is the adequate development beyond cabaret chitchat, of her relationship with Jean Cocteau, who wrote the play Le Bel Indifferent, with Edith in mind as the star. Likewise, her friendships with Maurice Chevalier and the poet Jacques Borgeat, and a deeper understanding of her discovery of Yves Montand in 1944 in Paris, whom she made part of her act and who became her mentor and lover. And the legacy of her signature song La Vie En Rose, which was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998.
See La Vie En Rose for Marion Cotillard’s award worthy, uncanny, from youth to death evocative incarnation of the singularly expressive songstress, along with the revisiting of her enchanting music. But not much else.
HBO Home Video
2 1/2 stars
DVD Extras; Stepping Into Character Featurette: Cotillard gets into character as Piaf; Extended version, 141 minutes.