La Vie En Rose

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This review was written for the festival screening of "La Vie En Rose." 

BERLIN -- Like singer Edith Piaf herself, Olivier Dahan's movie about her life, "La Vie en Rose," is showy and scattered, sometimes corny and other times outrageous, focused intensely on emotions, in love with its heroine and to hell with anything else.

Dahan, who co-wrote the script with Isabelle Sobelman, pulls apart Piaf's improbable, melodramatic life and puts it back together in a mosaic that suits his idea of the singer. Dahan sees Piaf's life as a fantasia where nothing separates life from art, where miracles dwell alongside tragedy and grief and a saint can drop by for a visit.

The film is messy the way Piaf's life was messy: It's unafraid of extravagant gestures even when they fail to come off.

"La vie en rose" aims at a broad international audience with a mix of Piaf standards, doomed romance and a larger-than-life, self-destructive heroine.

Thanks to an extraordinarily brave performance by Marion Cotillard, whose every gesture and singing performance channels not only Piaf but perhaps a bit of Judy Garland, the film should have wide adult appeal. Critics will be divided about the filmmaking, especially its more self-conscious aspects, but Cotillard's performance and the film's fervent, romantic belief that misery can be turned into art will connect with many age groups, especially among women.

Piaf lived only to age 47, so the movie begins with her in a spectacular collapse, her body looking years older thanks to arthritis and drug and alcohol abuse. Then it flashes back to the rough streets of Paris during World War I, detailing her abandonment by her mother (Clotilde Courau) and upbringing in her grandmother's brothel where a prostitute (Emmanuelle Seigner, very good) all but adopts her as her own.

Thus, the stage and the movie's approach are set: Edith is destined for show business with a street singing mom, a drunken circus acrobat for a dad (Jean-Paul Rouve) and grandma in her own entertainment business. And Dahan follows the emotions, not the chronology of Edith's life. He moves easily back and forth among childhood, old age (at least for her) and glory days in Paris and New York.

After a couple of children, ages 5 and 10, their faces smudged with makeup to suggest illness and malnutrition, play Edith, Cotillard takes over as the little sparrow or "La Mome" Piaf. Her body, at odd angles even at an early age and bent horribly later, catches that strange combination of fragility and toughness. Her singing in bars and later, after rigorous coaching by Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe) smoothes out the rough edges of the saloon, has the tremor of sadness and determination that makes her everyone's favorite French singer.

(The singing is a combination of real Piaf recordings and the work of Jil Aigrot. It's hard to tell the difference.)

Scenes pile upon each other, out of sequence but valiantly searching for the essence of the little sparrow. A tragic incident harkens back to a youthful triumph, where one might even then spot the seeds of unhappiness. A circus performer belches out fire that turns into Edith's own patron saint, St. Therese. Edith will be in a desperate physical or emotional condition, then a new composer strides into her apartment and -- voila! -- she hears "Non, je ne regrette rien" and shouts, "I like it. It's me!" She feels better already.

Famous friends and lovers warrant only passing mention in dialogue save for boxing champ Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins in the only truly masculine performance in the movie). Here things slow down. Dahan insists Marcel is the love of Edith's life, and his death in a plane crash nearly crushes her.

You know this because Dahan reserves his showiest set piece for the moment Edith learns of Marcel's death. In a tracking shot lasting several minutes, Edith awakens and thinks she sees Marcel in his bedroom. She rushes through corridors and rooms of her hotel apartment, searching for a gift as her entourage tries to break the news. Then she collapses in histrionic tears only to stagger through a curtain to find herself performing onstage. The sequence is awfully silly, but you have to admire the effort.

Olivier Raoux's sets are erratic, with fine details in the early Paris sequences but with New York sets of surpassing phoniness. Tetsuo Nagata's atmospheric cinematography is a treat other than handheld mischief in the early moments. The soundtrack of Christopher Gunning's period perfect music and, of course, Piaf's songs is sublime.

LA VIE EN ROSE
Legende /TF1 International/TF1 Films Prods./Songbirds Pictures/Okko Prods.
Credits:
Director: Olivier Dahan
Screenwriters: Olivier Dahan, Isabelle Sobelman
Producer: Alain Goldman
Director of photography: Tetsuo Nagata
Production designer: Olivier Raoux
Music: Christopher Gunning
Costume designer: Marit Allen
Editor: Richard Marizy
Cast:
Edith Piaf: Marion Cotillard
Momone: Sylvie Testud
Louis Leplee: Gerard Depardieu
Louis Barrier: Pascal Greggory
Titine: Emmanuelle Seigner
Louis Gassion: Jean-Paul Rouve
Running time -- 140 minutes
No MPAA rating

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