Despite great casting, it’s a bad time had by all in this Piaf biopic
LA VIE EN ROSE
Directors: Olivier Dahan and Sebastien Caudron
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Clotilde Courau and Pascal Greggory
Opens June 15 at the Magnolia.
2 hrs. 20 min. PG-13
It would take a lot to make me not care about Edith Piaf. But “La Vie en Rose” does it.
The screenplay’s structure wouldn’t support a one-story building. It makes the life of one of the biggest stars of her day seem like nearly 48 years of unrelieved misery.
Sure, that’s why gay men love her. But even Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and other icons had some moments of happiness. You may also think of Fanny Brice, as they both sang “My Man.” But Piaf is never a funny girl.
Marion Cotillard’s performance as the legendary singer is beyond reproach. It might be even more effective if the movie didn’t turn Piaf’s life into a jigsaw puzzle.
The earliest scenes are in 1918. Young Edith (Manon Chevallier), supposedly five (but she didn’t turn three until that December), is abandoned in Paris’ Belville district by her mother, who goes off in search of stardom. Her soldier father (Jean-Paul Rouve) takes Edith to live in Normandy with his mother, who happens to be the madam of a whorehouse.
Five years later, after she’s recovered from temporary blindness, her father puts Edith to work in a touring circus. A decade later, she’s discovered by entrepreneur Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who dubs her “La Mume Piaf” (“Little Sparrow”) and starts her on her way to becoming the toast of Paris.
Louis has a young blond assistant following him around like a love interest. Piaf, whose brief encounter with Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Silhol) may have amounted to more in real life, also has a young companion, Mumone (Sylvie Testud), who acts jealous when anyone gets close to Edith.
The story goes up to Piaf’s last night, in October 1963, with random stops along the way in every decade. Between her wretched childhood and her slow, painful death from cancer, her only happy times are during her doomed affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins). But even then, she suffers because he’s married and can’t be completely hers.
Presumably fame and the adulation of audiences brought Piaf some satisfaction, if not pleasure. But there’s less indication of that than of her addiction to drugs and alcohol. We get the impression she collapsed every time she went on stage. The movie’s half over before she makes it through an entire song. Cotillard’s singing voice is provided by a combination of original Piaf recordings and new ones by Jil Aigrot. The songs still sound great.
Most of the many people Piaf knew receive little or no introduction, which makes the jumpy structure hard to follow. It doesn’t help that three of the four main men in her life are named Louis.
Nothing helps. Director and co-writer Olivier Dahan rub our noses in the tristesse of Piaf’s life while hopping from one time and place to another so often we can’t make an emotional connection with her.
With Piaf on her deathbed late in the film, a new approach is introduced. Suddenly she’s being interviewed and allowed to wax eloquent about life and philosophy while even viewers who have been enjoying themselves are wishing she would already die.
Whether she’s growing up miserable, drunk on her ass or looking twice her age as she nears death, Edith Piaf doesn’t appear to be having a good time. Chances are you won’t either.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 15, 2007.