Wednesday, January 1, 2014

La Vie en Rose (2007)

Director: Olivier Dahan                                     Writers: Isabelle Sobelman & Olivier Dahan
Film Score: Christopher Gunning                       Cinematography: Tetsuo Negata
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Gérard Depardieu, Pascal Greggory and Sylvie Testud

Last year on the first of January I reviewed two French films, one on music and one an autobiography. This year I’ve sort of combined the two by taking a look at La Vie en Rose, the biography of famed French singer Edith Piaf. Interestingly, the film uses a similar sort of construction that Clint Eastwood used in Bird, his biopic of Charlie Parker. Director Olivier Dahan begins at the end, the last few years of Piaf’s life, and then juxtaposes this with her as a child growing up. Rather than flashbacks, Dahan simply cuts back and forth giving the viewer dates and places to orient themselves. Still, it’s a challenging film to watch as we gradually orient ourselves to the style of the film and learn about the life of this extraordinary artist. But in the end it is a rewarding experience and will no doubt be more so on repeat viewings.

The film begins in the late fifties, with her collapse onstage at a concert. In retrospect it seems a fitting way to open, as she struggled with life in so many ways and her singing always kept her going. From there the film cuts to 1918 and her father taking her away to end the neglect at the hands of her mother, a street singer. Young Edith was taken to live in a brothel run by her father’s mother, and when she was older he took her away yet again to go with him on the road with the circus he worked for. Eventually the film lurches ahead to 1935 and Marion Cotillard as Edith singing on street corners herself. There she is discovered by mobster Gérard Depardieu who hires her to sing in his nightclub. Marc Barbé eventually takes over her career and gets her into music halls. Again the film jumps ahead to her days in New York, and her romance with boxer Marcel Cerdan played by Jean-Pierre Martins. Her final days in 1963 are interspersed with the run up to the final concert she gives in 1960.

I had first seen Marion Cotillard in the Michael Mann film Public Enemies and, as with so many young actresses, wondered where she had come from. A bit of research led me to this film, which she had done two years earlier, and it is a revelation. In many biopics it takes a lot for the viewer to relinquish their disbelief, especially so when a major star is involved. This film, on the other hand, makes the viewer feel like a voyeur into the life of Piaf. Much of the credit for that success has to go to Cotillard, who utterly transforms herself in to the great singer and gives such a powerful performance that the Motion Picture Academy was compelled to bestow upon her a best actress Oscar, only the second time that has happened for an actress in a non-English speaking role. She has continued to work in American pictures, more recently for Christopher Noland in films like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and starring in the film The Immigrant.

This is not an easy film to watch, in many ways. First there is the chronology to maneuver. Dahan does give the audience dates and places, but only the first time that time period is entered, and makes it difficult sometimes to pick that thread back up. Characters in her life are also not introduced and it is often incumbent upon the audience to figure out who they are, which is not always easy to do. Secondly, the very act of Piaf’s own disintegration is challenging to watch, especially interspersed with the abuse she suffered. The mid thirties period is especially hard to endure given her own complicity in her troubles. Addicted to alcohol and later, drugs, and her death at a relatively young age, that is another connection between the great Charlie Parker from Eastwood’s film, as well as his nickname “Bird” and Piaf’s meaning “Sparrow.” It’s a long film that makes demands on the viewer, but La Vie en Rose is ultimately an important film that I am looking forward to growing into as I become more familiar with it. I would urge you to give it a chance too.

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