La Vie en Rose (France/United Kingdom/Czech Republic, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One has to wonder whether we are reaching the point of oversaturation with respect to bio-pics of famous singers. The landscape is dotted with them: Ray, Walk the Line, Control, I'm Not There, and so on. The field has become so crowded that Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan have embarked upon a parody of the genre called Walk Hard. France's entry into the burgeoning genre is La Vie en Rose, which is the latest feature to detail the life of icon Edith Piaf. The elements are all present: a difficult childhood, flashes of musical genius, a rocket to stardom, romanctic difficulties, and drug addiction. Going into the film, I admit to not having known much about Piaf, who died three years before I was born. Nevertheless, her story often feels overly familiar and I think the reason has a lot to do with its similarities to that of so many others.

The film presents Piaf's life via a broken chronology, leaping back and forth across time without apparent rhyme or reason. The movie dips into nearly every phase of her life, which lasted from 1915 until 1963, showing her in one scene as a dying woman who looks 20 years older than she is and in the next as a young girl during post-World War I France. La Vie en Rose's blatant disregard of linear progression is similar in some ways to Todd Haynes' approach to Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, but there's a key difference. Oliver Dahan may choose to present Piaf's life in a fragmented fashion, but everything is ultimately connected (and, except for the childhood scenes, there is a single actress playing the lead character). Haynes essentially made six short films and jumbled them together. The end result is more satisfying in La Vie en Rose, although there are still difficulties becoming immersed in a storyline that jumps around so much, especially when there's no clear purpose for presenting Piaf's life in this fashion.

The movie begins when Edith is a little girl. She is abandoned by her mother and father and left in the care of her grandmother, who runs a brothel. Edith becomes beloved of all the whores who work there, especially a needy young woman named Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), who treats Edith as her own daughter. Eventually, her father (Jean-Paul Rouve) returns for her and she joins him in his contortionist act. They leave the circus and strike out on their own, starting a father-and-daughter street act. He bends his body into odd shapes and she sings - and what a voice she displays! Some six years later, Edith (Marion Cotillard) and her best friend, Mômone (Sylvie Testud), are street singers. That's when nightclub owner Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) discovers her. He signs her to a contact. After his murder, her future is again in doubt but she is able to connect with those who can teach her singing techniques and it's not long before she's on her way to international stardom.

In the mid-1940s, while in New York City, Edith meets married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) and they begin a passionate affair. She declares that he is her one true love, and this is a sentiment she voices later in life, long after his 1949 death in a plane crash. Following Cerdan's demise, Edith becomes increasingly devoted to her singing. She marries twice during the 1950s but the film spends little time with either husband. She becomes addicted to morphine and alcohol and repeated attempts to kick the habit fail. By the time she's in her late 40s and her health is failing, she looks like an old woman.

Those who go into La Vie en Rose knowing little about Piaf will get a crash course in her life, although the fascinating World War II years are left out. (Was she a collaborator or a member of the French Resistance?) There's also a lot of her music, including both covers and original Piaf recordings. Her best known songs are all represented. As is often the case with music biopics, your passion for the music may influence your love of the movie.

Two things in La Vie en Rose are undeniably great: the performance of lead actress Marion Cotillard and the work of the makeup department under the direction of Didier Lavergne. Both are deserving of Oscar nominations. In the entire field of potential Best Actresses, few offer the kind of portrayal provided by Cotillard. This is no mere instance of mimicry. She inhabits the character, bringing life and passion to the role. When we care about Piaf, it's because of Cotillard's work not because of the haphazard approach of the screenplay. Although Cotillard has perfected Piaf's mannerisms and exhibits flawless lip-synching, there's more to her acting. She is given an able assist by the makeup artists whose efforts to age Piaf are without peer. This is one of those oh-so-rare instances when the old age makeup is completely convincing. It stands up to closeups. It does not look like a series of rubber applications held together by silly putty.

From a strictly story-based perspective, there's nothing special or remarkable about La Vie en Rose. However, throwing Cotillard into the mix, it becomes worthy of the investment of a viewer's 140 minutes. In many ways, Cotillard isn't just the glue that holds the film together - she is the film. This isn't the first time Piaf's life has been brought to the screen and it probably won't be the last, but Cotillard makes this particular version stand apart.

La Vie en Rose (France/United Kingdom/Czech Republic, 2007)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Drugs, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1