After so many other biopics about drug-addicted popular singers, it is refreshing to see “La Vie en Rose.” It follows the same template as all the others but produces better-than-usual results, thanks to a shattering central performance.
It’s the story of French singer Edith Piaf, who rose to fame in the 1930s and died in 1963 after three car accidents, battles with alcoholism and morphine addiction, and a bout with liver cancer. It was said that her voice was “the soul of Paris,” and her records were bestsellers. Even on this side of the pond she was recognizable by her crystal-clear warble and the plaintive, heartbreaking way she could crank out a tune.
In the film, which jumps back and forth between her early-to-middle life and her declining years, she is played by Marion Cotillard in what is unquestionably the best performance by an actress so far this year. You don’t need to be familiar with the real Piaf to see how fully Cotillard inhabits her, nor do you need to have seen Cotillard in other roles to understand what a stretch this performance is. It’s all there on the screen: her commitment to the character in all her moods and stages of life, her passionate re-creations of Piaf’s concerts, her unselfconsciousness at appearing buffoonish when Piaf is older, stooped over, frail, her hands clawed, her face ridiculous with too much makeup. The difference between the beautiful chanteuse of the ’30s and the bent-over shell of the ’60s is so vast you can scarcely believe it’s the same character, let alone the same actress.
Edith appears to have led a rather bizarre life, which no doubt increases the film’s viability as a work of entertainment. (People with boring lives make for boring films, after all.) Her mother was an unreliable singer, her father was a freelance circus performer, she was blind from age 3 to 7, and she spent her formative years living at a brothel run by her grandmother. If Charles Dickens had lived a century later and in France, he’d have cribbed from Piaf’s diary to write his novels.
We catch the gist of all this before moving to the meat of the film, covering Edith’s professional career. While singing on the street for coins with her half-sister and best friend Momone (Sylvie Testud), she’s discovered by Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), a nightclub owner with a flair for promotion. Soon Leplee has her singing to packed houses — and then, because nothing in Edith’s life is ever normal, Leplee is murdered and Edith is briefly considered a suspect.
As she becomes more famous, wealthy, and powerful, her life begins to take the more customary paths, and much of what director Olivier Dahan and his co-writer Isabelle Sobelman show us is the standard biopic material. At the height of her fame, Edith is a tottering diva, always looking like she’s about to fall down from too much laughter or liquor. She puts herself through hell to continue performing despite her failing health. Many of her songs are emotional ballads, and they reflect her life’s many tragedies, or vice versa. The love of her life is a boxer, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), who is already married.
There isn’t much flair in the film’s direction (though Dahan is obviously skillful), but that doesn’t matter. Cotillard never ceases to be captivating in her portrayal of the tortured, mercurial Piaf. She brings the singer to life in a way few actors have managed, transcending barriers of language and culture as she does so. Edith Piaf’s voice is immortal, and so is Marion Cotillard’s performance.
B+ (2 hrs., 10 min.; French with subtitles; )