Here’s my shame: I watched my first-ever review assignment on insomnia-acid. Funny things happen to film, of course, when you’re four nights’ sleep-deprived; a slow movie becomes interminable, and a busy one capers like a drunken stoat. That hallucinogenic tinge which creeps into your field of vision when you haven’t had your REM sometimes adds a layer of funk that can enhance or corrupt the director’s intention. Editing, which on a normal and well-rested day comes off as merely energetic, can seem frenzied when you’re out of your head with fatigue. Flashing lights slap at your eyeballs, and gravelly actors’ voices lose their rounded gruff and morph into grating. The pound of bullets can wreck your psyche if you’re too far gone, and your overall judgment may or may not be impaired (let me get that out there right up front — this is a review on crack of a special kind).
Thankfully there weren’t too many bullets flying in La vie en rose (aka La môme), the latest biopic about Edith Piaf, whom I would venture to say is one of France’s most recognizable exports, along with cheese, wine and dignity. Some of you Digital Age youngsters may not know her name or her face, but you’ve all heard her voice. It’s like the proverbial battalion of typing monkeys in search of Shakespeare: watch enough movies, see enough commercials, and sooner or later you’ll come across that voice looping through a soundtrack. To call Piaf the “Billie Holiday of France” as some do is — while immeasurably flattering — to underestimate the dimension of her cultural footprint and the significance she has for three generations of compatriots. In some minds — and in some moods — Edith Piaf seems to embody France, or at least mid-twentieth-century Paris, and this goes perhaps even more for foreigners than it does for the French. One can barely imagine the Gallic sound of a street accordion without an overcoating of that particular voice.
Before he made La vie en rose, Olivier Dahan was the guy you called when you wanted a music video or a second-rate sequel to a first-rate action-thriller that had been directed by someone with fuller chops. The expected bag of tricks of such a director — over-eager editing and a surreal tinge — are part of the show, here, but they mostly work. Beyond Dahan’s impressionistic (his term) narrative style and the occasional tilted angle, I spied a film of substance that proves Dahan possesses that most elusive of directorial traits: versatility. And his cuts and tilts and somewhat Gilliam-ish production design conjure up that element of the grotesque which surrounded Piaf’s life; the more overt visual tricks are married to a script mature enough to bear said tricks along, for the most part. In other words, any visual indulgences that swerved off the screen at me (which, in my state, probably seemed more pronounced than they really were) reflected the film’s central subject and communicated Piafness. It may be Filmmaking 101, but Dahan’s at least figured out the basics of backdropping story and theme with appropriate images and techniques (I’m always amazed by how many directors neglect the metaphorical opportunities that their medium — their very camera — affords them).
It is a biopic, of course, so expect the expected: childhood, transformation, denouement; the requisite montage accelerating our hero’s success; and dramatic moments rendered overdramatically, as if we may not recognize their import if they’re dialed down to a lower frequency. La vie en rose is bound to the convention of using flashbacks to tell a life story, but here the flashbacks aren’t sewn neatly into a stable book-ended frame — time swirls around, leaps ahead, and floats backwards while always managing to situate the viewer in Piaf’s storied teleology. Dahan hits most of the highlights: the spotty parenting of Piaf’s acrobat father and alcoholic/singer mother; her fostering by a procuress grandmother and a neurotically maternal whore named Titine; the temporary loss of her eyesight; her years as a busking pauper (only nominally more savory than her near-destitute childhood); her discovery and ascendance; a love affair; and the inevitable, existential wind-down as Piaf ails and evaluates her memories on a desultory deathbed. There are also a couple of remarkable omissions, however, including an entire marriage, and Piaf’s role in the French Resistance; in Dahan’s version of events, WWII and the Occupation are conspicuously absent — perhaps because they’re the only forces intense enough to upstage Edith Piaf herself, the way Dahan presents her.
The soul of the film is, in fact, the portrayal of Piaf which Dahan and his lead, Marion Cotillard, concocted with all their hearts. Cotillard may be familiar to readers who’ve seen Besson’s Taxi or Burton’s Big Fish, but chances are her presence here leans more towards unrecognizable, given the way she’s been made up to resemble Piaf and the way she’s adapted her voice, stance and mannerisms to suggest another being entirely, one who exists altogether in another age. Cotillard’s performance is exaggerated but apt (though it took me a while to realize this — dull synapses, and all). She pushes back with all her might against the expressionistic sets and the tragic action with her broad gestures and adamant voice; a lesser performance — a lesser actor — might have been lost in Dahan’s staging of Piaf’s turbulent history. It occurred to me only after the film was over that I had completely forgotten the woman onscreen was lip-synching every last song — Cotillard is that deep in her role, and she’s actually at her most believable when she’s portraying Piaf in her essential element, up on stage.
With eyes as big as her lungs, Piaf’s unique look and potent sound rescued her from the carnival that was her background — a carnival that Dahan represents literally as well as figuratively. The film even features a circus and a contortionist, and Piaf’s final stage performance at the Paris Olympia has Cotillard painted up clownishly with garish white face and red mouth. Deep in the background of the film’s bright dinginess can be found images of butterflies, reminding us that the scabby runt prowling the halls of a brothel will soon metamorphose into France’s most diminutive sweetheart, la môme piaf (literally, “the waif sparrow”). Her first public performance, in Dahan’s scheme, is La Marseillaise sung on a street-corner — how fitting that girl-Piaf sings France’s most recognizable tune, considering how woman-Piaf will one day own what is perhaps the country’s second most recognizable song, La vie en rose.
Dahan’s Piaf remains a staunch national signifier despite her disreputable origin, despite all the drugs and despite all the crying, collapsing and tantrums. Dahan registers Piaf’s impact best with a remarkable scene in which her onstage performance is muted outright, as if her singing voice were big enough to transcend the silence — it’s a voice you can almost see, and Cotillard carries it to us right through the screen. Dahan effectively makes his point that Piaf was unique, and his staging of Non, je ne regrette rien at the film’s end — the song I’d been waiting all movie to hear — is a right goosepimpler, regardless of how manipulated you may feel by the over-poignant memorializing. Strong performances, histrionic scenes, fab music and lots of pulsing color kept me awake, anyway, and somehow made the movie stick to my sleep-viscous mind. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on July 12, 2007.)