'La Vie en Rose': Edith Piaf's encore

The new biopic revisits dith Piaf's tragic life and explores how it affected her art.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

The great French singer Edith Piaf, who died at 47 in 1963, gets the biopic treatment in "La Vie En Rose." Cross-cutting back and forth across the decades, writer-director Olivier Dahan takes in practically her entire life. However painful that life might have been for Piaf, it's almost criminally suited to the movies.

It's all here – heartbreak, passion, murder, acclaim, abandonment. Although Piaf's life has its legendary side, there was apparently no need to embellish the record. If anything, Duhan had to pare down the events.

Raised in her grandmother's brothel in Normandy, Piaf, who was born Edith Giovanna Gassion, was nearly blind and deaf as a child, due to illness. At 14 she joined her father as an acrobatic singing street performer and in 1935 was discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Gérard Depardieu), who nicknamed her La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow). Subsequently she was accused, and acquitted of, abetting in his murder.

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By 1940 Piaf was the toast of Paris, celebrated by stars such as Jean Cocteau, Marlene Dietrich, and Charlie Chaplin. After the war her fame became international. The love of her life, middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), was killed in a plane crash in 1949 while on his way to visit her. A car accident two years later left her addicted to morphine.

This is just a sampling of Piaf's bio. Is it any wonder that her signature song was "Non, je ne regrette rien"? Her fortitude had no room for regrets. Like Billie Holiday, to whom she is often compared, Piaf was a singer whose heartache is palpably present in every quaver of her voice. (All but four of the songs in the film are from original recordings; the others are sung by Jil Aigrot and Maya Barsony.) Equating an artist's life with her art is often a dubious dramatic ploy, but it makes sense in the overlong "La Vie En Rose" because the content of Piaf's life and the power of her singing are all of a piece. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the voice featured in the film's soundtrack.]

Although he's not as boorish about it as his Hollywood counterparts, Duhan indulges the old biopic cliché that art comes out of suffering. In the case of Piaf, who is played by Marion Cotillard, this notion is not entirely irrelevant but, more often, what we actually see is a woman for whom suffering was an impediment to art (as it also was for Holiday, or, for that matter, Judy Garland).

Duhan's criss-crossed time structure reinforces the idea that Piaf's life was fated to end badly. Long before the end we see brief scenes of the dying chanteuse.

What seems more integral to Piaf's art than suffering, however, was her intense fear of loneliness, and this Cotillard conveys powerfully. For Piaf, to be out of the spotlight was to be nonexistent. When she sings for her audiences in "La Vie en Rose," she seeks a connection so intense it can never be undone. Although she could be disparaging about her gifts, Piaf exhibited herself, and was experienced by her fans, as the archetype of the self-immolating artist.

"La Vie en Rose" elevates Piaf the archetype over Piaf the artist. Although I question this approach, I'm not sure it could have been done any differently, at least given the facts of Piaf's life. If there is such a way, Duhan didn't find it. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language, and thematic elements.

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