Edith Piaf’s tidal emotional vulgarity and brutish commitment to the most sentimental chansons is captured accurately and even irresistibly in La Vie en Rose, an epic, intuitive exploration of her hard life and times. In recent years, audiences have endured a deadening heap of biopics that have either betrayed or exploited their subjects. The rare good biopic, like Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, generally tried to give us a sense of lives as they might have been lived. La Vie en Rose goes in the opposite direction, treating Piaf’s life and art as a heartfelt, theatrical spectacle. Director Olivier Dahan has said he wanted to make a “tragic, romantic blockbuster,” and he has done so: this is bravura popular filmmaking, marked by both precision and gusto. The use of Piaf’s music is so impressionistic throughout that it almost has a Terence Davies flavor to it; song is treated as memory.
When we see the life Piaf had to remember, we can feel why she’s anxious to “throw it into the fire,” as she sang in her valedictory song, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” If Dahan had simply presented Piaf’s various torments chronologically, they would have been unbearable after a while, even ludicrous. He avoids this by moving back-and-forth in time, so that events from her beginnings serve as pitiless contrast to future success and travail. As the hardships from her childhood, youth, and middle age seesaw and pile up, we can only marvel at the coarse street-girl toughness that Piaf used to hang on to her soul. Marlene Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva called Piaf “corroded steel in a little black dress.” This film makes it clear that she had to be that inflexible to survive. Homeless and destitute with her half-mad mother (Clotilde Courau), young Edith is then taken in by prostitutes, goes blind for a time, puts up with a pimp, has a child who dies, sees her first stab at a singing career dashed when she is blamed for the murder of her employer (Gerard DePardieu), loses the love of her life in a plane crash, survives a serious car accident, becomes addicted to drugs, is afflicted with crippling arthritis…everything but bloodhounds snapping at her rear end, really.
Piaf is sustained always by her huge, rippling singing voice, a gift from the gods, with a vibrato that might lash out to destroy anything in front of or inside her. In a beautifully handled scene, the young Edith is prodded to do something for a crowd (she has joined the circus at this juncture), and when that big voice comes out of her, it really does seem like a miracle, a freakish blessing. But she has to learn to shape her gift like an artist. In a risky device that works well, when Piaf is really feeling the words of a song for the first time on stage, Dahan cuts off the sound so that we only see her connection to the lyrics, and see this change in her approach reflected in the audience’s faces. In the film’s most impressive sequence, she watches her lover box while Piaf’s swelling “Mon Dieu” plays on the soundtrack, building and building until you don’t think it can go any further, than reaching further still. Edith Piaf is all about endurance.
If the film is successful, though, and it is, it is mostly due to Marion Cotillard, a French actress in her early 30s who plays Piaf from saucy girlhood to gargoyle end. It’s an extravagant, stylized performance: she’s like a female Peter Lorre, gruesome and gentle, her huge eyes sending out panicked signals for help, then bone-crushing whacks of rude displeasure. Her shoulders are always up around her neck, and her neck is continually jutting forward, so that she looks like an apprehensive turtle, but beware the snap of her gutter-tart growl. When Piaf falls in love with her doomed boxer (Jean-Pierre Martins), Cotillard makes her eyes very pure and beseeching: this is a woman whose capacity for love and heartbreak is both off-putting and endearing.
As Piaf turns into a sacred monster who can barely walk, Cotillard inhabits this woman’s broken body in a magically convincing way, and the unusual structure helps her performance because we can still remember the raw girl in this ruined but touchingly unyielding crone. When Cotillard’s Piaf says she prays because, “I believe in love,” the film has made her a wholly admirable figure by staying scrupulously but never indulgently true to her spirit and character, which was so prone to disaster that she learned to relish the mess. Piaf felt the need to be an example of defiance, a secular saint, even, never losing the thrill of worldly pleasure even when she was leaking overbearing street waif tears into her imperial, unignorable voice.