June 11, 2007
How could a bioflick about the tragic French singer Edith Piaf be anything but depressing? I said something similar to my nephew Will yesterday at brunch, while we listened to the lovely singer Pamela Luss at the Mannahatta lounge/restaurant in SoHo. We were talking about the new movie La Vie en Rose and discussing whether or not either of us would go.
But then I had an evening with nothing to do, and knowing it would be unlikely the film would ever make the screens at cineplexes in Lower Alabama, I opted to catch it at a screen a few blocks away, on West 23rd Street.
I knew what I was in for – a grueling retelling of a life as full of heartbreak and trauma as the voice of Piaf herself, the trembling “little sparrow,” who could fill a stage with the strength of her pain and the glare of her sheer human endurance. French actors have a gift for capturing the ordinary and making it as compelling as it is beautiful. You can see all the way through the eyes of these performers to their hearts, souls, and the national character of La France itself. Marion Cotillard, a beauty I had not seen before, transforms herself to the singer from the streets of Paris who came to be an icon for a generation of French.
The film plays tricks with time and surprises us with bits of plot information too late, but the overall effect of seeing it is that of travel to the Paris from the early through the mid years of the 20th Century. Here we meet a sickly girl, raised in a brothel and nurtured by whores, pushed by her street-circus-acrobat father to sing to hold the crowds. The first time out, she essays Le Marsellaise and does herself proud. This being her song, we see that she herself is a metaphor for France’s indomitable, tortured soul, and we see why the French responded to her with adoration to the point of idolatry. Never mind that the real Piaf was 4’8” and wraithlike, that her voice was a piercing, trembling, emotionally wrenching shriek from a heart begging to be broken once more. Never mind that the real Piaf had a life of success, adulation, and was mentor and lover to Yves Montand (among others), and died not of overwork or neglect as the film suggests, but of cancer, at the time married to a 26-year-old man who adored her. This movie dwells on her tragedy, and bathes us in it.
Having said that, I know it’s weird to admit I liked it. Americans will be reminded a bit of Judy Garland, and rightly so, but Piaf was herself, and she was Paris. The movie is beautiful, Cotillard is breathtaking, and you leave the theatre being thankful to be ordinary.