Monday, November 19, 2007

La Vie en Rose

dir Olivier Dahan

Still on show at various art houses is La Vie en Rose, a long overdue bio-pic of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, a born drama queen.

She certainly had a life full of incident: born to bohemian parents who neglected her, left in the care of her grandma who ran a bordello, discovered singing in the streets of Paris and put on the stage, passed from one alpha male to the next, before descending into various addictions and dying young. So much for Amy Winehouse to live up to, n'est-ce pas?

Portraying the singer, actress Marion Cotillard has a difficult task, called upon as she is to spend much of her time in heavy prosthetics/make-up as the film projects forward to Piaf's decline in later years before shooting back to her childhood, where she is played by a younger actress. Cotillard's task is to pick up the thread from the early years and carry it through to the singer's later drugged-out phase. She does get to perform on-stage, but the singing appears to be done by others.

Some of the actress's best moments come in the depiction of two very different but key relationships in Piaf's life: one with her friend Momone, whom we first encounter with her on the streets of Montmartre, Piaf singing and Momone collecting money. The tone is set: Piaf is the talent in the duo, Momone the support act. This later becomes a problem once Piaf becomes famous and doesn't depend so much on her friendand and the two split acrimoniously. A pity, as Momone is an intriguing character and her disappearance two-thirds of the way through robs the film of a point of context for Piaf.

The other relationship is with boxer Marcel Cerdan, married and thus not truly available to Piaf. But this doesn't stop her entering into a passionate affair with him, curtailed by his death in a plane crash. This scene is cleverly turned into a kind of dream sequence, with Piaf not recognising that he has not returned to her as promised, but is dead. She goes into a kind of catatonic state, and is propelled on-stage, the implication being that the stage was her true home, where she could express her innermost emotions.

The figure of St. Therese is a motif, with Piaf praying to her at various dramatic moments, hoping for protection. Religion and sin are thus juxtaposed, exposing a certain amount of hypocrisy in the various circles in which she moves.

Other narrative threads are left hanging. One early trauma of Piaf's life was being spirited away from the bordello by her father, with no warning, leaving behind Titine, a prostitute who had acted as a mother figure to the young girl. I rather expected this character to reappear at some point, so important did she seem. But nothing doing. One senses that the film may have been subject to some insensitive editing to cut down its running time.

The film is well-executed, looks sumptuous and the performances are good, but I was left largely unmoved. What stayed with me were the songs, especially what became Piaf's theme song: "Je ne regrette rien". "Rehab" just can't compare.

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