Not-So-Pretty in Pink 

No regrets but lots of warts in Edith Piaf biopic

In some green room of the afterlife, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Maria Callas are gnashing their lip base over the diva trip that’s been handed to French actress Marion Cotillard in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose.
In some green room of the afterlife, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Maria Callas are gnashing their lip base over the diva trip that’s been handed to French actress Marion Cotillard in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose. You want an entrance? Before a sold-out crowd of adoring bluebloods, the ailing Little Sparrow has collapsed in the spotlight. All she wants is another shot at the stage. As all hell breaks loose backstage, the beloved singer is heard praying to her patron saint: “Bring me back to life!”

Trip, nothing: La Vie en Rose is practically an expense-paid around-the-world diva cruise—a This Is Your Life episode reshuffled into an associative deluge of show-stopping Big Moments. Showbiz biopics are curious affairs anyway, half consecration and half ritual murder: they’re ostensibly flattery by imitation, but the star is still trying to eclipse the subject by borrowing the subject’s mantle and mannerisms. The young gun still means to slay the old legend, except instead of packing pistols he wears the dead man’s clothes.

La Vie en Rose at least makes it a fair fight. A life in pink, indeed: Piaf retouched her biography assiduously, starting with her birth, and despite tales of clandestine Resistance heroics, her wartime experiences were clouded by suspicion even after her death in 1963. Faced with Piaf’s self-invention, director Olivier Dahan and his co-screenwriter Isabelle Sobelman turn her story into an impressionistic whorl of elided details—as if Piaf were sorting through her own official history, haunted by some of the redlined parts.

Dahan’s film is less a peek through rose-colored lenses than a study in reverse hagiography: the worse Piaf acts, the greater and more inexplicable her talent looms. (She all but proves Randall Jarrell’s wonderful conundrum about “the well oysters that don’t have the pearls.”) Explained but not excused by a squalid childhood in which performing and exploitation were currency, Piaf emerges as a snitty, mercurial, addiction-prone little monster with a supernova’s sense of entitlement. Unstuck in time, the movie skips from her upbringing on the streets of Belleville and in her grandmother’s bordello—where snatches of later standards such as “Hymne a l’amour” waft by on a phantom accordion—to her tutelage under nightclub impresario Louis Leplée (Gerard Depardieu) and her ascendance to the concert hall.

As Piaf, Marion Cotillard is never less than commanding. Most vividly remembered as the vengeful prostitute in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, she’s taller than the tiny Piaf, but she gives the impression of a goat barreling forehead-first through a forest of human obstacles. (She nails Piaf’s peculiar birdlike posture: chin on chest, big eyes extended pleadingly in a near-parody of waifish vulnerability.) She lives up to that voice, too—that room-filling vibrato that could go from conversational to declamatory in the space of a phrase. When Dahan cuts from the withered Piaf whispering “I won’t sing again” to a scene where she uncorks the full force of her vocal power, his nonlinear approach yields genuine pathos.

And yet the lavishly mounted movie succumbs to biopic clichés that were already whiskery when Bugs Bunny bashed them in “What’s Up, Doc?” The insurmountable problem of biopics is that we want the subject’s art, and all they can give us is the life: a pageant without the subject’s animating force. While the time shifts and tricks of perspective help—a tour-de-force sequence detailing the tragic end of Piaf’s romance with heavyweight champ Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) is particularly inventive—the movie remains a greatest-hits reduction of a complicated figure. (The eleventh-hour introduction of Piaf’s daughter is handled with all the finesse of a rookie lawyer producing a surprise witness.) Though convincingly made up, however distractingly she resembles Lucille Ball in sad-clown mode, Cotillard becomes a marionette jerked around by Piaf’s mannerisms.

Would we remain riveted by this pathetic story if its off-putting subject were not one of the century’s great performers? Probably not. Let it be said, though, that when Dahan boldly cuts out the sound during Piaf’s climactic performance, leaving Cotillard to pantomime in silence, we can still hear that voice.

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