In a society where celebrities receive more media attention than seemingly more important news, there are few secrets about their lives, most of which are a bore. The lives of true iconic artists who overcome all obstacles to rise to fame, however, can entertain and enthrall at the same time. “La Vie en Rose,” a drama based on the life of Parisian singer Edith Piaf, played immensely well by Marion Cotillard, is one of those stories.
Piaf was born in 1915, and the movie begins with her singing “La Vie en Rose” at a supper club in New York City in 1959. She collapses, an ambulance is called, and the scene transitions to 1918 where Edith is a ragged child crying on a street corner, while her pregnant mother (Clotilde Courau) sings for money. Her father, Louis (Jean-Paul Rouve), is away at war and Edith’s mother finally dumps her at her mother-in-law’s. Years later, when her father returns, she’s found living in squalor. Needing to return to the war, he dumps her with his mother, Louise (Catherine Allegret), who runs a brothel in Normandy.
Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), one of the prostitutes, becomes obsessed with Edith, takes her under her wing, and helps her get well and even survive a period of years where Edith is blind.
After her father retrieves Edith from the brothel, he returns to his former trade as a circus performer. Tensions escalate between Louis and the owner, and he takes off on his own with Edith in tow. Louis’ contortionist show fails to draw a crowd, but when he asks Edith to sing, her exceptional voice brings in the money.
Years pass and Edith finds an acceptable, though volatile and risky, life as a street performer. She and her best friend Momone (Sylvie Testud) are in love with life. Things really change when she’s overheard by cabaret promoter Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu). He recognizes her unique and incredible voice and invites Edith to perform at his club, where, dubbing her “Little Sparrow,” he makes her a star in one night. That world suddenly dims when he’s found dead and Edith is questioned about the murder.
Left on her own again, she hires Barrier (Pascal Greggory) as her manager, and after much work he perfects Edith’s talent. Her life could have been roses from here on in, but this was not to be for the singer who was troubled from birth. She battled addictions to either overcome the pain of her life or to reach the unrelenting stamina with which she performed.
Writer-director Olivier Dahan chooses to unfold this dramatic story through memories, published accounts and a past-and-present timeline that jumps back and forth - a little too much for my taste.
“I wanted to express what I think is what an artist feels - whether it’s Piaf or any other,” said Dahan. “Apprehension, anxiety, desire. I didn’t want to make a biopic, but I did want everything that was in the movie to be real. It’s just that, at certain points, especially concerning her childhood, which she rarely discussed, I extrapolated, using the few elements at my disposal.”
The movie is very effective in presenting a clear picture of how love drove Edith to maintain her life and career. This is especially true when she meets and falls in love with boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins). That he is married is only one of the additional obstacles he brings to her life. The other comes when he dies in a plane crash in 1949.
Part of the fascination of “La Vie en Rose” is the incredible performance of Marion Cotillard (“A Good Year”), who not only had to learn to mime to Piaf’s well-known songs, but, in essence, her spirit and demeanour as well, because she was very much a visible star of this century.
“I watched many tapes and listened to so many interviews that they ended up feeding a kind of inner process,” said Cotillard. “We never worked on the physical aspects of the character: the way she walked, move, spoke. And then, the first day on set, I heard, ‘Action,’ and this voice I had never heard before came out of my mouth. Part of being an actor is inviting characters in or summoning them up to share with you what you are. Some people may find all that a bit mystical, but after spending so long watching, listening to and loving her, I often had the impression that she was there.”
For those who are familiar with Edith Piaf’s life or anyone interested to learn more about this star who earned great admiration from the likes of Marlene Deitrich, Chaplin and Yves Montand, “La Vie en Rose,” in French with subtitles, should not be missed.
“La Vie en Rose” opens June 15 at Landmark La Jolla Village Cinema.