If you’re making a biopic that covers the majority of someone’s life, as opposed to concentrating on a short period of it, surely it would be pertinent to include the most important parts. With La Vie En Rose, Oliver Dahan’s film charting the adolescence and career of singer Édith Piaf, the main problem is that certain periods and life-changing events are completely ignored.
Marion Cotillard stars as Piaf, in a performance of such magnitude the actress won nearly all of the awards known to mankind in 2008 (including Best New Car at the Guild of Motoring Writers Awards and Most Liveable City, beating out perennial smug favourites Vancouver and Toronto). In fact you could probably count the number of Cotillard’s victories on 431 hands, but perhaps the most notable were the shiny gongs for Best Actress at the César, Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe awards. (In fact she became just the second person in history to win the first two of those listed for the same performance, the other being either Jason Statham for his magnificent turn in Crank: High Voltage or Adrien Brody for The Pianist. I can’t remember which right now, but if anyone reading fancies setting up a handy internet movie database so I can check this kind of thing in the future that’d be greatly appreciated. I’ve checked and The Database of Movies on the Internet (or DbMI) is currently free.) Anyway, Cotillard is undoubtedly superb as she shouts, cries, screams, laughs, drunkenly bellows and snorts her way from one scene to the next, pausing only to chew all of the fixtures and fittings before moving on with an uncomfortable-looking stoop. She captures the roughness of Piaf, a woman who seemingly never shook off the grit of those Paris streets, and probably never actually wanted to.
The film begins at the end, showing an ill Piaf as she struggles to get through her stage performances. From there the story leaps around from period to period, but generally keeps things chronological, so we see initially follow Piaf as a child, in poor health and neglected by her mother, a street singer in Paris. Her father, a circus contortionist, takes her away to live in a brothel with some caring prostitutes, but in turn snatches her away after she has formed a strong bond with one of them, named Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner). This sad, unsettled upbringing helps to colour the life that follows, where loved ones and friends repeatedly leave Piaf, die suddenly or are taken away from her by the authorities.
In adolescence she sings on the streets of Montmartre while getting drunk with her snarky friend Mômone (Sylvie Testud), earning small amounts of money that are then passed on to a local pimp. She is spotted at this point by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu), who persuades her to come and sing at his club, where he coins her stage surname (La Môme Piaf, meaning ‘Little Sparrow’). Piaf’s popularity rises and she soon begins training with Raymond Asso (Marc Barbé), a poet and songwriter who adheres to the age-old myth that teaching an art can only be done effectively if you repeatedly fly off the handle every time your pupil gets something wrong. A series of obvious images appear as a montage to indicate the rise in Piaf’s fame, such as record covers and press photographs, and in no time at all Leplée is dead, Piaf has relocated to New York and she is in love with married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins).
Something’s missing at this point, though. Ah yeah, that’ll be it: World War II. Y’know, the one in which France was invaded by the Nazis, when Piaf actually performed frequently at social gatherings for high-ranking German officials. Yeah, that World War II. The conflict had a huge impact on everyone’s life in France, Piaf’s included. She was considered to be a traitor to her country, but stated after the war that she had helped the French Resistance movement. One performance at the Tom Tom Club enabled her to pose with French prisoners of war, who were subsequently able to use the photographs in forged passports. Considering the film covers the major points of Piaf’s life, correctly identifying them as experiences the singer drew from when performing, it’s a huge mistake to ignore the war years. It has been pointed out that the words of one of her most famous songs, “Non, je ne regrette rien”, take on deeper meaning when the war years are considered. Unfortunately no-one told the writer-director and his co-writer Isabelle Sobelman.
The war isn’t the only period of Piaf’s life the film ignores. When Piaf was 17 she gave birth to a daughter named Marcelle, who died at the age of two. This pregnancy / birth / motherhood / child death period of three years isn’t even referred to in the film until close to the very end, when Piaf is dying and experiences a series of flashbacks of the major events in her life. To say it’s a glaring omission is a bit of an understatement; as a viewer that didn’t know much about Piaf’s life beforehand, when I did eventually learn of it I couldn’t believe that this had been ignored. To make matters worse, one of the emotional peaks of the film sees Piaf discover that Marcel Cerdan has died in a plane crash. She screams the name ‘Marcel’ in grief as she walks along the corridors of her New York apartment. As she cries the camera switches so that she suddenly appears to be walking onto stage, and she breaks into song; I’m in two minds about this. It looks good, and it highlights the links between Piaf’s personal tragedies and her performances, but it’s not exactly subtle. In fact it’s only one step removed from being bashed over the head repeatedly with a sign bearing the legend “Do you get it?”. Surely this scene would have been lent extra weight had we known about the dead daughter, especially since the names ‘Marcel’ and ‘Marcelle’ are so similar.
Piaf’s two marriages after Cerdan’s death are not really explored in any great detail either, all of which might make you wonder just what actually is in the film. Well, aside from Cotillard’s excellent performance, the film’s main strength is its production design. The sets are lavish, the costumes are stylish and there is a strong colour palette throughout (rich blood reds and dark greens are the order of the day). It looks sumptuous, and it is also lit very well. The look of the film manages to heighten the sense of drama surrounding Piaf, although it also helps that the character is at the centre of every scene, dominating proceedings (to the extent that most of the supporting cast, including the loves of her life, actually feel more like extras than actors with substantial roles to play).
If it is relentlessly downbeat, then perhaps rightly so: Piaf’s professional life soared, but her personal life appears to have been littered with tragedies, health problems, alcoholism and possibly addiction to other drugs. This makes for a hard-going 127 minutes, but due to the missing material the director and his co-writer left out, the film still feels rushed by the end. It is disappointing that such major events are ignored, especially given the fact that the rest of her life is examined thoroughly in the film. This isn’t a reverential biopic, and although it has its moments it isn’t overly sensational either. It’s also annoyingly close to being a much better film.
Directed by: Olivier Dahan
Written by: Olivier Dahan, Isabelle Sobelman
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Gérard Depardieu
Running Time: 127 Minutes