Edith Piaf was no ordinary singer. She lived live at a fever pitch, driven by demons from her horrific childhood, and cruel twists of fate that together drove her to an early grave. No ordinary bio-pic would do to capture the essence of what Piaf was, rather than what happened to whom and when. And so it is that LA VIE EN ROSE frets little with a strict chronological ordering of events. Instead, director and co-screenwriter Olivier Dahan charts the emotional highs and lows of her life and the result is simply stunning.
Marion Cotillard plays Piaf from vibrant adolescence to her frail, but no less vivid, forties. The impudence, the pride, the wariness are all there. When she puts her hands on her hips and begins to lip-synch to Piaf’s voice, she is channeling more than the gestures, she is living the entire life that led up to that moment. Played out in precise, but never cold, detail and with the fluidity of memories welling up at random, Dahan weaves past and present by firmly establishing Piaf’s roots in the streets. It is a childhood more fantastically awful that fiction would allow. Neglected by her mother, a failed singer, only to be rescued by her street-performer father and then almost immediately abandoned by him and left with his mother, a brothel owner, her instincts for emotional bonding were hopelessly stunted, if they were ever allowed to flourish at all. A deep attachment to one of her grandmother’s prostitutes is abruptly severed when Piaf’s father returns to take his child on the road with his circus act. Forced to leave behind the woman who nursed her back to health after a bout of blindness and gave her an unorthodox take on religion that is long on compassion and short on harshness, Piaf’s later fierce, almost obsessive attachments make perfect sense, as does her mercurial changing of her affections. One affection that never changes, and is her downfall, is the one she develops for Marcel Cerdan, a boxer who becomes the great love of her life. His stunning good looks seduce her, but it’s the way he sweetly courts her with American food at which she turns up her nose, and then champagne and haute cuisine that charms her and the audience.
Dahan also firmly sets Piaf in the realm of her memories, and in her desperate need for the accolade and affection of the audience. The showiest, exquisitely calibrated both technically and emotionally, is the falling away of reality for Piaf when confronted with the tragedy that sent her life into a downhill spiral. She receives the news and then stumbles across her elegant apartment, which seems to fall apart at the seams leaving her finally alone on a stage, a single spotlight on her as she sings her heart out.
LA VIE EN ROSE showcases Piaf for what she was, larger than life with an unquenchable passion for excess and for the spotlight. She lived her life with a take-me-as-I-am attitude and the film is the same. Here is what made the woman tick, if you need facts, find them in a book, if you want to understand her soul, see this film.