Monday, January 7, 2008

SS: “La Vie en Rose”: The Brilliant, Brief Life of Edith Piaf

There is a shocking scene about two thirds of the way into “La Vie en Rose,” a film I saw last week about the life and death of Edith Piaf, the French singer who rose to international acclaim during the 40s and 50s. It shows Piaf (in a marvelous performance by Marion Cotillard) at the end of her life, when she was dying of liver cancer. She looks old, terribly so, with her disheveled hair dyed a garish shade of red, a stooped, unsteady gait and a face that belongs on a 70-year-old. In this scene she is 47, the age she died.

It is likely that the cancer was brought about by Piaf’s years of morphine and alcohol abuse. The morphine habit began in 1951, when she was involved in a car crash, and doctors gave her shots of the drug to alleviate her pain. The brilliance of “La Vie en Rose” is primarily due to Cotillard’s ability to channel the unique emotional amalgam that likely made the singer fall prey to such a deadly addiction, as well as director/writer Olivier Dahan’s clever use of flashback to set the stage, so to speak, for Piaf’s life.

It seems there was some sort of void in Edith Piaf’s life. Despite her amazing talent, which brought her fame, fortune and love, she was missing something fundamental, always looking to fill a hole with no bottom. No doubt she ultimately turned to drugs and booze as part of this fruitless mission.

What was the exact nature of Piaf’s void? We’ll probably never know, but the film gives us some clues by offering glimpses of the singer’s life in the form of memories she recounts in her last days. Dahan pulls this off by feeding the audience these scenes in a jumbled, non-chronological fashion, realistically mimicking the way a dying person likely reviews key moments in the past. It never feels like a gimmick.

We learn about Piaf’s abandonment as a child by her mother and father, the brief time she found a semblance of parental acceptance in the arms of an emotionally fragile, loving prostitute she meets while living with her aloof grandmother, who runs a brothel in Normandy. We see Piaf torn from this relationship when her father comes back for her, along with the constant verbal abuse from him that further chips away at her spirit.

It seems this childhood left Piaf a bit of a child herself. Even as she reaches the pinnacle of fame, there is always a glimmer of a very childlike need for love and acceptance, which Cotillard conveys brilliantly through her facial expressions – especially with her eyes. This “eyework” starkly illustrates the contradiction between Piaf’s outward actions and her true feelings, such as in the scene where Piaf has her first date with the man who would become the love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cerdan. During the scene, Cotillard displays Piaf at her most bombastic – making loud, somewhat off-color remarks in a high-end restaurant – always the showgirl. But when Cerdan lovingly comments that she looks like a fairy, her eyes widen in innocent wonder and hope, showing that terrified little girl within, a little girl who still can’t quite believe she can be loved.

Cotillard is equally stunning in her depictions of Piaf’s distinctive physical mannerisms. She captures the Piaf gait – a bizarre sort of movement of her legs and feet in a wishbone pattern away from her torso, giving the impression of a small-footed circus performer trying to walk in clown shoes – perfectly. Even in Cotillard’s walk, you can see how Piaf was never quite comfortable in her skin.

In one of the most devastating scenes in the film, when Piaf learns Cerdan has perished in a plane crash, Cotillard uses her entire body to manifest the disbelief and sorrow she feels, taking the audience along on Piaf’s emotional trajectory so effectively that one cannot help but feel that same sense of sorrow, loss and rage.

Perhaps the film’s only weakness is its late revelation of Piaf’s young daughter, Marcelle, who died of meningitis when Piaf was a teenager. If Dahan is attempting to convey that this tragedy “explains” the emotional upheaval of Piaf’s life, it doesn’t work. It is too much of an easy, Hollywood-esque denouement to such a complex subject. Luckily, Cotillard’s performance make up for this in spades.

© Sarah Stanfield, January 7, 2008

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