Reviews Too Late: La Vie en Rose

by wjw on November 14, 2008

In Implied Spaces, I wrote a completely gratuitous scene in which I, using Aristide as a mouthpiece, expressed my admiration for Edith Piaf. “Who could forget Piaf?” Aristide asks, with some incredulity.

Not me, obviously.

La Vie en Rose is a biopic about Piaf, and it’s not a cheerful film. It’s very long and it’s filled with misery, despair, abandonment, pain, murder, depression, illness, addiction, death, and tragedy. This is perhaps the ultimate movie for people who want reasons to be thankful that they’re not superstars.

Piaf’s life sucked. She was abandoned by both parents and partly raised in a brothel. As a child she was blinded by an infection that lasted seven years. She was only four feet ten inches tall. Her child died of meningitis, the impresario who discovered her was murdered by her gangster friends, the love of her life died in a plane crash, she was crippled by arthritis, addicted to painkillers, and died at the age of forty-seven.

The thing that kept her going was talent and will. In her forties, hunched, in pain, looking thirty years older than her actual age, and barely able to move, she had to be nearly carried to the microphone so that she could sing “Je ne regrette rien.”

Brilliantly, one might add.

There are two reasons to see this movie, even if it makes you want to throw yourself off a balcony afterward.

The first is the astounding performance given by Marion Cotillard as Piaf. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for this part, even though the part is in French. How often does the Academy reward an actress performing in a language other than English? (Twice, actually, the first winner being Sophia Loren nearly fifty years ago.)

Cotillard doesn’t look anything like Edith Piaf, but she had to play the character from her teen years through her death. The makeup was a miracle, but it was the performance that really made the character come alive. Cotillard captures Piaf’s rapture, her agony, and her impish humor. Watching her mobile face reacting to the situations had me astounded and delighted.

The second reason to see the film is a single scene. (Note: spoiler follows) Edith is in New York, and her lover Marcel is in France. She calls him and begs him to visit her.

Next we see her in bed, in the morning. Marcel arrives and climbs into bed with her. They have a brief conversation. Edith is delighted by his appearance, and in a long tracking shot walks through her apartment to the kitchen (passing her lifelong friend Momone on the way, propped in a corner like a mannequin). She makes toast and coffee for two, puts them on a tray, and walks (another long tracking shot) back to the bedroom, for another short conversation with Marcel. There’s a huge, beaming smile on her face all this while.

Then Edith remembers she has a present for Marcel, and goes to fetch it. She can’t find it, and gets a bit hysterical, opening drawers at random throughout the apartment. Momone and other members of her posse stand around watching. This is all in one take.

Edith demands to know why in hell they’re standing around watching while they should be helping to find Marcel’s present. Her manager takes her by the shoulders, tells her that she must be brave, and informs her that Marcel has died in a plane crash.

Disbelieving, Edith rushes through the apartment to the bedroom (the camera following). Marcel is gone. She calls out for him and he doesn’t answer.

Edith falls apart and races through the apartment screaming. The camera follows her. This goes on for a long while. Right at the point at which we can’t really take watching this any longer, she opens a door, and steps out onto the stage of a nightclub.

In a reverse shot, she sings “Hymne a l’Amour” to an empty club, the seats filled only by ghosts.

This scene was such a miracle I had to watch it twice.

It’s the only extended scene in the film that suggests the supernatural. (Well okay, Ste. Therese appears briefly in another scene, as a scintillation of light, to cure Piaf’s childhood blindness.) The nightclub scene is the only one to be the least bit surreal. But it works. It’s perfect.

The scene works as an extended metaphor to show Edith’s journey from bliss to tragedy. It works as another metaphor showing how Edith transforms the tragedy of her life into art. It works as a scene showing how another’s death can fragment one’s existence, and leave a person inconsolable and alienated from their surroundings.

The supernatural element makes it stand out from what is otherwise a grimly realistic rendering of Piaf’s life. It makes the viewer stand up and take notice. It’s really the best ghost scene I’ve seen in ages, far more chilling than anything I see in so-called horror films.

I have no idea whether Piaf ever claimed to have encountered Marcel’s ghost on the day of his death. It doesn’t freakin’ matter.

They should be teaching this scene in film classes for the next hundred years.

And— just to show you how much of a miracle was Marion Cotillard’s performance, here’s a video of her neither looking nor singing like Piaf.

brad November 15, 2008 at 1:15 am

Ha!! I rented it as a date-at-home movie for me and my wife…. Not what we expected at all…

dubjay November 15, 2008 at 1:24 am

No, not a good date movie. It’s much better for watching from the bathtub while slitting your wrists.

Anonymous November 15, 2008 at 6:08 am

I’m less enthusiastic than you. True, the movie is technically excellent, but Marion Cotillard’s acting is sometime strained, even hysterical. Piaf’s voice does all the work.
Also, there is no history sense to the plot: the characters live in a nebulous “past”, with no progression from the 30s to the 40s to the 50s (and whatever happened to World War Two?). Sylvie Testud (Momone), an excellent actress, is wasted here. Plus: Piaf launched the career of several singers and/or songwriters like Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour and Georges Moustaki, who are either absent or have walk-ons at best.
A parting shot: did you notice that the New York scenes are lifted (re lightning and color schemes) from Scorcese’s “New York, New York”?

dubjay November 15, 2008 at 7:20 am

Movies have to be condensed, alas. I would like to have seen Aznavour and Montand, and for that matter Maurice Chevalier, who helped Piaf in her early years. But you can’t fit all that in a two-hour film. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait for the miniseries.

As for World War II, it got skipped for the same reason that the war got skipped in the biopic about Coco Chanel. Piaf’s role in the war, and Chanel’s, were morally dubious, and there wasn’t enough time to go into a proper debate about their actions. (Again, we await the miniseries.)

I rather liked the fractured use of time in the film. It allowed the filmmakers to approach Piaf’s life thematically rather than chronologically, so that they could construct each act for its emotional impact rather than having to to wait for the emotion to appear in the timeline.

The resemblance to “New York, New York” escaped me completely, but then I haven’t seen the Scorsese film since its release.

I very much liked Cotillard’s performance, but then I haven’t seen Piaf on film, either, so I have no comparison with the real thing. As a performance I thought it was terrific, though I have no idea how it would stack up as an imitation.

Jon Williams November 15, 2008 at 8:13 pm

I liked the film, but it was quite sad. She still has one of the best voices I have ever heard though.

Anonymous November 16, 2008 at 2:04 am

I noted and enjoyed the scene in _Implied Spaces_. Told my wife (a big Piaf fan after I introduced her to the recordings) about it, in fact.

cheers, erich martell

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