Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
There is much that can be said about La Vie en Rose, but the one thing you cannot overlook is how just how fantastic Marion Cotillard is in the lead role. There is an argument that her performance as French music legend Edith Piaf is perhaps one of the greatest performances in the history of movies. That might sound like a form of hyperbole, but such is the power of her work here that it almost makes one overlook any issues there with the film itself.
On the one hand, it looks to be a very nuts-and-bolts biopic. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can sometimes lead to a film being accused of being a Wikipedia entry adapted for the big screen. Olivier Dahan’s film version depicting the life of one of France’s most iconic figures takes a non-linear approach that is quite welcome, marking it out as something different right away rather than just going from A-to-B-to-C in depicting a person’s life.
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It zeroes in on Piaf’s final days, focusing on her past in a more fractured way as if they are memories being recalled. It can lead to the film being somewhat unevenly paced but then you may not care or worry about that. By the time the film settles on Piaf’s adult life, after spending the first act on her childhood, it is being carried by Cotillard, and with it one of cinema’s all-time greatest performances. Yes, she mimes to the music, but it’s the way she captures the physical fragility of the singer and the complex elements of her inner character that makes this a blistering piece of work.
Like Jamie Foxx, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Hudson in the previous three years, Oscar voters were once again wowed by a performer transforming themselves into a singing superstar when bringing their life to the screen. She becomes so much a part of the character that halfway through the film you practically forget that you’re watching someone pretending to be Piaf and just accept who she is for the duration of its run time. It makes the film into a special experience, one that is none more French, and you can see why it had a lot of appeal to awards voters in a period when playing music superstars were the guarantee of awards approval and critical acclaim.
Like Coal Miner’s Daughter, La Vie en Rose spends more time than you might expect in Piaf’s earlier days, a childhood beset with a neglectful mother, a father who must abandon her to make money, and being raised in a brothel owned by her grandmother, finding a maternal figure in Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner).
When Edith’s father returns, there is the inevitable heartbreak of her separation from Titine, and as she grows up the potential for stardom and becoming someone with stature thanks to her talents is taken away due to a scandal involving the murder of the man who discovers her, Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu). The film never shies away from the turmoil and personal crisis that ravages her, and one could even argue that the film even borders on what some would dub misery porn, but what it does is effectively lay down the basis for why those deeply personal lyrics carry so much weight for her.
Dahan goes to town in the second half with Piaf’s life of luxury in New York, the fame she acquires but also the breakdown of one of her most important friendships, and the loss of a man who is effectively the love of her life. The journey to acceptance and American stardom never comes easy. Once again in a reminder of Coal Miner’s Daughter, there is something tangible about the environment that the film captures in those earlier moments, the earthliness of the rain-swept French streets, the threat of those who control and corral her for money upon that early burst of stardom and all those darkly lit bars and back alleys that she frequents before becoming the global superstar that she becomes in the latter stages of her sadly all too short life.
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Despite only living to forty-seven, La Vie en Rose grasps at the expansive life experience that Piaf had, and conveyed so beautifully in her music. Like so much of the genre it’s a part of, the varying highs of creativity and horrifying lows of trauma brought about by a messy personal life and increasingly poor health add the rough to the smooth.
Through it all Cotillard captures the strengths and fragility of Piaf in a manner that frequently transcends the art of screen acting; the display of happiness at her relationship with boxer Marcel, the tragic low of his loss as his death is relayed to her, and the eventual disintegration her health make it a near kitchen-sink type of film that lays on the poverty, the heartache and the rare happy moments in a manner that you can once again see why a spoof film like Walk Hard had so much material to mine around the same time.
By the time she is forty-seven, Piaf’s increasingly ill health almost makes her look older than her years, and when it comes to the inevitable ending, Dahan has his cake and eats it for that heartbreaker of a finale. The film cuts back and forth from Edith on her death bed to her iconic performance of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, a performance the film ends on giving Edith a triumphant moment with which to lead into the end credits; but it’s the moment prior where she dies that the film achieves a level of thematic brilliance that will linger long in the memory.
The non-linear choice of the narrative might appear to be nothing but a stylistic choice for the first two thirds, but by the conclusion it reveals itself to be a powerhouse portrayal of fractured memories. As she lays on her bed on what a subtitle describes as her final night, Edith recalls other memories that the film has not portrayed up to that point, including an embittered conversation with her mother, a moment of kindness from her father, and the previously unmentioned loss of her child while still struggling on the streets of Paris as a young woman. It gives new credence and power to the film as a whole, and marks it as not just a biopic of a singing superstar, but a stunning exploration of life and memory as much as anything else.
Director Dahan would go on to direct Grace of Monaco after this, another film about a famous female celebrity set against a world stage, but that would be a frothy concoction of lesser power compared to this (and would be met with a derisive reaction from critics). It would have been so much easier to use the obvious options with La Vie en Rose, but it never does. While it has some glossy fun during the New York section of the film when it focuses on her love affair with Marcel and gets to luxuriate in 1940s New York, with the costume and production design that comes with it, in the end, the film is not some empty spectacle or a chance to romanticise the past.
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Romance is a part of Piaf’s story, but this is never a simple-minded romanticised story. Her dying breaths are as emotive a depiction of a character’s dying moments as ever put to film, Cotillard capturing the confusion, fear, acceptance and welcoming of lost memories in a manner that is amongst the most powerfully portrayed moments in a film that is largely full of such powerhouse acting choices from the actress. The film chooses to conclude not on her death, but on her face lit by a spotlight on stage as she sings her iconic final song. The film is filled with such moments of Cotillard lit on a stage capturing the essence of Piaf perfectly.
It recalls to mind a moment halfway through when Piaf is shown taking to the stage after overcoming stage fright for what will become her star-making performance. It is a ready-made iconic moment. Her silhouette against a glaring spotlight, the stage in front of her, an audience awaiting the moment of something truly special. It is the most perfect representation of not only a stage performance in a film, but of the moment when a star is truly born.