Few bio-pics about the rich and famous do justice to their intended subject matter. Instead, most regress to a level of artistry, inextricably trapped somewhere between glamorized, glossed-over truths and utterly dull concocted fiction. Olivier Dahan’s La Vie En Rose (a.k.a. La Môme 2007) is the exception to this rule; a viscerally engaging, brutally tragic tome, embodying the heart-breaking complexities of legendary chanteuse, Edith Piaf. The trick and the majesty in Dahan’s direction is tenuously balanced between a superb evocation of Piaf’s squalid childhood and impoverished youth and Dahan’s cherry-picking of aspects from Piaf’s bittersweet success that avoid any commentary whatsoever on her work in the French Resistance during WWII. Still, he manages to remain captivatingly literal to Piaf’s tapestry of life.
The other inspiration working for the film is Marion Cotillard’s sensitive interpretation of Piaf. It is hardly a stretch to suggest Cotillard as one of the most charming and exotic French beauties of our time, and, in the same breath point out that Edith Piaf – even in her prime – was hardly that at all; more the little brown wren than a blossoming bird of paradise. Cotillard’s haunting physical transformation is a miracle of prosthetics and makeup. But it remains only half of the makeover. The more formidable conversion is burnished from within. With soulful grace, integrity and panged, tortured desperation, Cotillard wills Piaf from the grave. It’s a startling performance, Oscar-worthy and so honored by the Academy.
There are really two narratives simultaneously at work in this magnificent film: the first documenting Edith Piaf’s tumultuous childhood and youth; the second charting her decline and frail, failing health, her addictions to prescriptions and alcohol, and her ill-fated love affairs in the months preceding her untimely 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 tattered remnants and teeming with regrets. And yet, the tale is one of inspiration; of a tearfully triumphant human spirit set free from its world-weary and weather-beaten human tabernacle.
Piaf’s enduring legacy as the preeminent French chanteuse of her generation is unimpeachable. To listen to her vocalizations today is to have her reach through one’s sound system and time itself as few artists of any generation can or have, the phenomenon of this wounded girl, firmly cemented in an adult woman’s vocal range, puncturing the balloons of hypocrisy with an impassioned fortitude. If only for this indescribable and elusive quality, then Edith Piaf would already be a legend. She is, in fact, never anything less than authentic. Yet, Dahan’s film could so easily have missed its mark with a lesser actress in the lead. With Marion Cotillard, however, he has achieved a sublime fusion of one artist bewilderingly morphed into another.
There are no superlatives to effectively summarize Cotillard’s central performance. The film belongs to her. In manner, visage and sheer acting prowess, she assuages the artifice of her craft and provides a seamless bridge from Piaf’s past into the present; in effect, doing everything but call out Piaf in an otherworldly spiritual resurrection. It’s enough to send chills down one’s spine as Cotillard ignites the inner lantern of Piaf's own desire, the stirring echoes caught in our collective hearts. When Cotillard steps before the microphone to recreate Piaf’s ‘Non je ne regretted rien’ her own translucence burrows deep into Piaf's soul. She is nothing less than intense and uncanny. Indeed, Cotillard has since reflected that “As a teenager, I didn't want to be me. I wanted to be many different people. Maybe I realized that they all lived inside me and that if I managed to connect with them, they would become aspects of me. I don't think you learn how to act. You learn how to use your emotions and feelings.” This presence of mind, or perhaps genuine need to escape from her circumstance, has yielded a rich and masterful portrait of one of the 20th century’s truly irreplaceable singing talents.
Wisely eschewing a literal chronology of Piaf’s troubled life, director Dahan instead reshapes his non-linear narrative into defining moments that effectively etch out the 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 as 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 used to frequent. Mercifully, one of the working girls, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) dotes on Edith, bonding with and rearing the child as her own.
Blinded by keratitis between the ages of three and seven, Edith is sent to convalesce at Saint Therese de Lisieux; the benevolent prostitutes pooling their monies to pay for her treatments. At wars end, Louis returns to collect his daughter, making her a part of his failed circus act. There, she begins to sing for her supper on the streets as her mother had done before her. The film narrative jumps ahead to Edith’s teenage years. Her first love, Albert (Dominique Bettenfeld) proves a disreputable pimp, who takes most of Edith’s 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 the ingénue 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. She is suspected of being a wanton woman at best, and complicit in Leplee’s murder at worst. 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 wreck 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 prizefighter, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) – by all accounts, the one great love of her life. Cerdan’s premature death in a plane crash sends Edith over the edge once again. Although her first husband, Jacques Pills (Laurent Olmedo) vows to commit his wife to a sanitarium for treatment, the cure is more painful than the illness and never quite the success either.
La Vie en Rose travels a narratively tricky path, excluding many momentous events from Piaf’s life, while merely hinting at others: her second marriage to Greek hairdresser, Theo Sarapo; her French Resistance activities during the war and her film career are never even mentioned in this movie. Yet, in the final analysis, it doesn’t seem to matter. The threads that have been woven into Isobella Sobelman’s screenplay provide more than enough of a flavorful élan. What the movie managed to do spectacularly well is to capture the essence of the individual without chaining its own artistic integrity and freedom to express and explore to the literalisms of it. This alone is an astounding achievement, in fact, void of obvious cleverness and imbued with a more altruistic sincerity. Dahan gives us Piaf as simply, perceptively and succinctly as 140 minutes of screen time will allow. This is not a musical bio-pic, rather a finely honed and intricately textured melodrama with portions of Piaf’s musical brilliance interpolated into the artistic mélange as counterbalance and for dramatic effect. Although original Piaf recordings were used for much of the film, four songs featured herein are re-recordings, imperceptibly sung in the great lady’s style by singer, Jil Aigrot.
Piaf died of liver cancer on October 10, 1963 – France’s national treasure, whose funeral procession stopped traffic cold down the congested streets of Paris. La Vie en Rose refreshingly chooses to conclude on a more whimsical note of antithetical hope and promise, with Piaf peacefully lying on her death bed, able to recall with deep satisfaction the performance she gave at the Olympia; singing the rousing ‘Non je ne regretted rien.’ In a film of many darkly lit, and even more darkly purposed - if poignant – scenes, this finale creates an almost liberating reflection on Piaf’s extraordinary life beyond the footlights. In the final analysis, La Vie En Rose is a ‘must see’ motion picture experience.
TFI Video in France is the only distributor to have made La Vie en Rose available in hi-def, under its original French title, La Môme. The results are thrilling. Many will recall when La Vie en Rose had its North American release back in 2008 there were two competing DVD’s offered: a superior anamorphic scan held under license and distributed by HBO, and an absolutely abysmal, bizarrely non-anamorphic disc, made exclusively available in Canada from Sony Home Entertainment (who usually know better than this!). This TFI Video Blu-ray easily bests both of the aforementioned discs and is the much preferred home video presentation. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this is a reference quality disc, destined to provide much viewing pleasure. Contrast, color fidelity, overall clarity and fine detail excel. Colors are exquisitely rich and satisfying. La Vie en Rose is a very dark film, Tetsuo Nagata’s cinematography utilizing natural light and dim gas and candlelight to superb effect. This can sometimes create havoc with edge enhancement and macro-blocking. But no, herein, the image is gorgeous, solid and supremely satisfying. Better still, absolutely no age-related damage.
The 5.1 DTS audio is a revelation, capturing all of the subtle nuances in the sound field design. Wow! Please note: this disc is advertised as ‘region B’ locked when in reality it is Region Free and playable anywhere in the world. This Blu-ray does come with a second disc of extras on DVD. That DVD is region B locked and will not play, unless, of course, you own a region free player. The really good news; the Blu-ray is stocked with a ton of extras too and, if you already own the HBO DVD from 2008, then you effectively possess the extras contained on this second DVD. Alas, all of the extras herein are in French without the benefit of English subs. But, the film itself contains an option to choose English subtitles. Bottom line: La Vie En Rose is exceptional film-making by any artistic standard one might wish to ascribe. It is required viewing and now, for the first time, we have a home video presentation worthy of the art Olivier Dahan and Marion Cotillard have wrought. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)