Remarkable biopic captures La Vie and soul of French diva Edith Piaf

La Vie En Rose

on June 08, 2007 by Wade Major
For more than 70 years, the voice of legendary Gallic songbird Edith Piaf has been the very personification of France—raw, passionate, forceful and so extraordinarily evocative of the French character that her recordings remain as popular today as when Piaf was in her prime. And yet, Piaf's life was anything but charmed: An awkward, frail and emotionally unstable child who emerged from the ravages of war, poverty and a shattered family to stir the soul of a nation, Piaf could be a charismatic, domineering diva one moment and an insecure, lovelorn girl the next.

Cinematic stuff, to be sure, but a gargantuan challenge for the filmmaker and actress whose task it is to unravel one of history's most publicly enigmatic cultural icons—in this case actress Marion Cotillard ( A Good Year and A Very Long Engagement ) and writer/director Olivier Dahan ( La Vie Promise and The Crimson Rivers II ), both solid talents whose previous work in no way suggests the level of excellence to which they rise here.

Unlike most cradle-to-grave biopics, La Vie En Rose doesn't reduce its subject's life to a simple chronological timeline of highlights. Juxtaposing the crucial periods in nonlinear fashion, Dahan lays his film out like a postgraduate thesis, following the emotional currents to whatever period or event is most dramatically expedient.

It's a particularly tall order for Cotillard, who plays Piaf from her teens until her death at a prematurely aged 47. Indeed, if Cotillard had only managed to master Piaf's unmistakable physicality, it would have already been a praiseworthy feat. But it's the inner sadness, the desperate, tragic yearning for the love and fulfillment she never attained, that lies at the heart of Cotillard's breathtaking turn, arguably one of the greatest biographical performances in the history of movies.

Given Piaf's iconic stature, it's not surprising that the filmmakers have spared no expense in re-creating the turbulent decades through which Piaf's voice carried a nation, delivering the kind of eye-popping production values that rarely need more than workmanlike direction to hold it together. But Dahan takes as many stylistic risks as narrative ones, in at least two instances so recklessly defying convention and traditional practice that the triumphant result can only be characterized as inspired.

It would be disingenuous to deny that there's something of an old Hollywood A Star is Born feel to the picture as well—largely a function of the period it depicts—but perhaps also a nod to the films and filmmakers who helped pioneer this very kind of melodrama.

For all its scale, scope and seeming grandiloquence, however, La Vie En Rose is at its core as simple, pure and penetrating as Piaf's voice itself. Distributor: Picturehouse
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Paul Rouve, Gerard Depardieu, Clotilde Courau, Jean-Pierre Martins, Catherine Allegret and Marc Barbe
Director: Olivier Dahan
Screenwriters: Olivier Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman
Producer: Alain Goldman
Genre: Biographical drama; French-language, subtitled
Rating: PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements
Running time: 140 min.
Release date: June 8, 2007 NY/LA

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