Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose is a film that is likely to upset some viewers. No, it’s not in the least salacious. In fact, it’s quite remarkable that Dahan was able to make a film about a character as colorful as Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard, A Good Year) and still qualify for a PG-13 rating. (Then again, the MPAA may simply feel that a movie in French with subtitles about a woman who died 44 years ago isn’t apt to be drawing too many members of the younger crowd in the first place.) The problem—or rather the thing that’s most likely to rankle viewers—lies in Dahan’s stylistic choice to serve the story up in a jigsaw-puzzle fashion.
The film opens in 1959, quickly moves to 1917, then moves to 1960 and so on. For viewers expecting a linear narrative, this may prove both daunting and irritating. And yet the puzzle isn’t all that hard to follow—and more importantly, it keeps the film out of the rut of the standard biopic. It’s also central to Dahan’s approach to the film as an almost internal portrait of Piaf. The film is as often as not about what goes on in Piaf’s mind; it’s not a standard biography that follows her from the cradle to the grave. Dahan’s approach is a wise choice in itself. Allowing the scenes to play in bits and pieces serves the function of cross-referencing, keeping the viewer aware of Piaf’s life as a whole, not as a storyline. Considering the fact that anyone knowing anything at all about Edith Piaf is going to know not just that her life was tragic and that she died young, but also probably has a pretty good idea on what note of anthemic defiance the film is going to end. (Piaf-ophiles get no points for guessing the last song in the film.)
While the film works more than it doesn’t, it’s hardly without flaws. Even as it stands—and at a substantial 140 minutes—La Vie en Rose perhaps tries to cram too much historical material into a confined space. Consider, for example, the out of nowhere introduction of the existence of Piaf’s long-dead daughter, Marcelle (Maureen Demidof), in the last stretch of the film. It also often seems that the film was crafted by people who are too close to the subject. There’s a marked tendency to assume that the viewer knows the basic outline of her life prior to seeing the film. That’s fine for the initiated, but not so easy on novices. The daughter business is one example, but there are others like the nature of her relationship with Momone (Sylvie Testud, The Legacy), and the truly curious fact that the film manages to ignore World War II altogether.
By way of compensation, however, Dahan has created many scenes that are quite simply astonishing, and occasionally magical. The sequence involving a circus fire-eater (Jan Filipensky, Everything Is Illuminated) and young Edith’s (Pauline Burlet) fancy that his flames are the voice of St. Theresa is wholly remarkable. Then too, there is a stunning scene where Piaf imagines an encounter with her one great love, the French boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins, Empire of the Wolves), that at first appears real, only to turn tragically otherwise. To top this, Dahan moves from the tragedy of this scene to Piaf seeming to walk straight from the shattering moment into the healing adulation of an audience at one of her concerts. Now, this is the sort of thing one only finds in the work of incredibly accomplished filmmakers. It’s also notable that while Dahan tends to flood the soundtrack with Piaf recordings, he’s equally capable of sacrificing this approach for the good of the film as drama.
But the true genius of the film lies in Marion Cotillard’s performance as Piaf (which Dahan undoubtedly had something to do with). The cliché of an actor seeming to truly become the character has rarely been more appropriate than it is here. Even that does something of a disservice to her performance, since Cotillard does something that is even more amazing. It’s easy enough to make Piaf a tragic figure. The material is all there. What is not so easy is to make her into a truly sympathetic human being, because for all her undeniable talent and tragedy, for all the excuses that can—and probably should—be dredged up to explain her, Piaf is not a very likeable character. She’s just too spectacularly self-indulgent and too much an inconsiderate pain to quite like. Cotillard’s performance overcomes this: the wild fear that never leaves her eyes, the sense of a kind of childish quality to the way she approaches life is evident in every scene. The latter is wondrously expressed in Piaf’s encounter with Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Silhol, All the Mornings of the World), in which Cotillard manages to convey the sense of a star-struck kid encountering a beloved icon, completely undercutting the unpleasant sense of entitlement evidenced by Piaf in nearly every other capacity.
There are several very fine performances in the film—including Gérard Depardieu as Louis Leplée, the man who discovered (and named) Piaf, and Emmanuelle Seigner (The Ninth Gate) as Titine, a prostitute who becomes the closest thing to a mother Piaf ever had—but in the end, it’s Cotillard’s performance that holds Dahan’s film firmly in place. For her performance—and for Dahan’s often extraordinary filmmaking—La Vie en Rose is a work to treasure. Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements.