Tuesday, April 22, 2008

LA VIE EN ROSE (Picturehouse 2007) HBO Home Video

Few bio-pics about the rich and famous do justice to their intended subject matter. Instead, most regress to a level or artistry trapped somewhere between glamorized glossed-over truths and utterly dull concocted fiction. Olivier Dahan’s La Vie En Rose (La Mome for the French release, 2007) is the exception to that rule; a viscerally engaging, brutally tragic tone poem that embodies the heart-breaking complexities of legendary chanteuse, Edith Piaf without remaining a literal tapestry of her life.

There are really two parallel narratives simultaneously at work in this magnificent film: the first documenting the singer’s tumultuous childhood and youth; the second charting Piaf’s fragile decline in health, her addictions and ill-fated love affairs in the few months preceding her death. Dahan’s direction reveals the vibrant, textured intricacies of a woman who too late in life discovers her own inner strength pieced together from the tattered remnants of shattered, bittersweet memories.

There are no superlatives that can effectively summarize Marion Cotillard’s hauntingly sublime central performance. In manner, visage and sheer acting prowess she does everything but call out Piaf in an otherworldly resurrection; sending chills down the spine as she ignites the inner lantern of Piaf's passion in our own hearts. When Cotillard steps before the microphone to recreate Piaf’s ‘Non je ne regretted rien’ we experience the essence, the very translucence of Piaf's soul through her performance; Piaf herself having somehow migrated into this new and most inspired living tabernacle.

Wisely eschewing a literal adaptation of Piaf’s troubled life, director Dahan instead adapts a non-linear narrative of defining moments to etch out his story. We are first introduced to 5 year old Edith Giovanna Gassion (Manon Chevallier) a child of the hard-knock Belleville district in Paris, crying her eyes out while her mother, Annetta (Clotide Courau) sings for coins tossed in the street.

Assessing the toxicity of this neglectful relationship, Piaf’s father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion (Jean-Paul Rouve) removes Edith from her mother’s care. However, as he is about to be shipped off to war, he leaves the child inside the whorehouse he frequents where thankfully one of the working girls, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) dotes on Edith, bonding and rearing the child as her own.

Blinded by keratitis between the ages of three and seven, Edith is sent on a recovery to Saint Therese de Lisieux after the whores pool their monies together to pay for her treatments. At wars end, Louis returns to collect his daughter, making her a part of his failed circus act where she begins to sing for her supper on the streets.

The film narrative jumps ahead to Edith’s teenage years. Her first love, Albert (Dominique Bettenfeld) proves to be a disreputable pimp who takes most of her earnings as remuneration for not selling her into prostitution. However, a reprieve comes in the form of nightclub impresario, Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu). Impressed with Edith’s virtuoso singing style, Louis offers Edith her first real taste of showbiz. Rechristened Edith Piaf, the young chanteuse proves an instant, if volatile stage sensation – connecting with her audiences on an emotional level. However, the mystery surrounding Leplee’s murder does much to tarnish Edith’s reputation.

Edith’s personal life is a shambles. She is nearly killed in a car accident with lover, Charles Aznavour (Alban Casterman). Life threatening injuries sustained in the crash necessitate the administration of morphine injections that render Edith an addict. She travels to the United States under the watchful eye of mentor/trainer Bruno Coquatrix (Jean-Paul Muel), arriving in New York City where she falls in love with married prize fighter, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) – by all accounts, the one great love in her life. Cerdan’s premature death in a plane crash sends Edith over the edge once again and, though her first husband, Jacques Pills (Laurent Olmedo) vows to commit his wife to a sanitarium for treatment, the cure is never quite successful.

Many events in Piaf’s life have been excluded from this film; her second marriage to Greek hairdresser, Theo Sarapo; French Resistance activities during the war and her film career in totem are never even mentioned. Still, what remains in the screenplay by the director and Isobella Sobelman reconstitutes enough of the flavorful élan of Piaf’s colorful life to provide more than a snapshot of her tragic struggling toward greatness.

This is not a musical bio-pic but rather a finely tuned and deeply textured melodrama with portions of Piaf’s musical brilliance woven into the artistic mélange for counterbalance and effect. Although original Piaf recordings were used for much of the film, four of the songs featured are sung in the great lady’s style by singer, Jil Aigrot.

Piaf died of liver cancer on October 10, 1963 – a national treasure whose funeral procession stopped traffic cold in the streets of Paris. The film chooses to end on a more whimsical note of hope and promise, with Piaf on her death bed recalling the performance she gave at the Olympia; singing the inspirational ‘Non je ne regretted rien.’ In a film of many darkly poignant scenes, this finale creates an almost liberating reflection on an extraordinary life beyond the footlights. In the final analysis, La Vie En Rose is a ‘must see’ motion picture experience.

Be forewarned: there are TWO versions of La Vie En Rose currently in circulation - the superior of these held under license and distributed by HBO and with the above DVD cover art. This version has been anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The widescreen image exhibits a dark, brooding and richly saturated color palette with superior contrast and fine details evident throughout. Flesh tones are stylized and beautifully realized.

Now for the bad news: the alternate version inexplicably owned and distributed primarily in Canada by Sony Home Entertainment (cover art, right) is appallingly bad! Despite being labeled on the back packaging as 16/9 2:35:1, the transfer is non-anamorphic and non-progressively mastered in letterbox. The image throughout is much too dark with an incredible loss of fine detail. Edge enhancement is evident and extremely distracting.

The audio on both versions is identical in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Extras are limited to an all too brief ‘making of’ featurette. There are two other discrepancies between these two versions worth noting. First, the HBO version is clearly labeled as an ‘Extended Version’ but both copies contain the same, presumably ‘theatrical cut’ of the film running 143 minutes.

Second, The Sony edition contains subtitles for all of Edith Piaf’s songs (which is a bonus) while the HBO version regrettably and inexplicably omits any English translation of the songs in its subtitles. I cannot comprehend what possessed Sony to relocate the English subtitles on their non-anamorphic transfer below the actual screen image.

In the theater, these subtitles were laid over the bottom portion of the actual film image. On the DVD, they are presented in the black band below the letterboxed image. This presents the viewer with a problem when attempting to reformat the image using ‘aspect ratio’ controls on a widescreen television to recreate the 2:35:1 ratio not provided on the DVD since the subtitles are then cut off at the bottom!

Bottom line: La Vie En Rose is exceptional film making featuring a most extraordinary Academy Award winning performance by Cotillard as Piaf. If you live in Canada, special order the HBO version instead of buying the Sony edition off the rack and be prepared for one of the most haunting translations of actress into character ever achieved in movies.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

HBO version 4
Sony version 1

Both versions 2

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