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La Vie en Rose (6/10)

by Tony Medley

This certainly isn’t what I signed up for when I went to a screening of what I thought was a biopic of French singer Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard). I wanted to hear her sing her songs, as well as learn about her life. To the contrary, this film minimizes her singing and fictionalizes her life. I think Edith would be very disappointed in this effort to tell her life story. One thing that comes across in this film is that if she couldn’t sing, Edith felt she couldn’t live.

Unfortunately, modern filmmakers don’t have the respect for the music that those in the past have had. She starts out singing “Milord,” her biggest American hit, but halfway through the performance the film cuts to scenes and dialogue with the song continuing in the background. The title song is also sung under dialogue. What a terrible decision by the filmmakers, akin to the way the people who made De-Lovely (2004), Beyond the Sea (2004)  and Walk the Line (2005) minimized the wonderful music of Cole Porter, Bobby Darin, and Johnny Cash, respectively. At least, unlike the latter two, these filmmakers had the wisdom to use Edith’s voice instead of having an actor do the singing. When you make a biopic of a singer, the music is the star, regardless of the quality of the story. So don’t go to this expecting an Edith Piaf concert. The music is there, but it’s not the star.

This film is dismally depressing. Poor Edith (Piaf was a stage name, meaning “little sparrow,” changed from Gassion by her first legitimate employer, cabaret owner Louis Leplée, played by Gérard Depardieu), if she lived a life filed with such constant unhappiness as shown here.

This is basically a film about loneliness. Director-writer Olivier Dahan expertly captures the overbearing solitude that dominates a life of one forced to live without close relationships. Although, as we shall see, was Edith’s life as bad as portrayed here? Unfortunately, this film strays far from the facts and shows that she was abandoned by her mother, left basically friendless, and lived her entire life without anyone to whom she could be close and serene, except for her short affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), who was married to someone else, and a close friend, named Simone Berteaut, called Momone (Sylvie Testud), who is shown as being with her throughout her life.

Dahan also leaves out her two year relationship with Louis Dupont, with whom she had a daughter who died of meningitis shortly after its second birthday. Also not making the cut is her two year affair with French actor Paul Meurisse, whom she dumped later in favor of Henri Contet, who wrote many of Piaf's subsequent hits. In real life, Piaf was among the elites of Parisian life, with relationships with Jean Cocteau and Yves Montand, among others. None make it into the film.

While it might be true that the only love of her life was Cerdan, she still had innumerable affairs. However, one of the memorable scenes in the movie is the creative way Dahan handles Cerdan’s death in a plane crash. By the time of that scene I was convinced I was watching a film that was more like a biographical novel than a biopic, so the apparently fictional way Dahan shows Piaf’s reception of the news of Cerdan’s death did not bother me. In fact, I liked it.

Dahan is frank in that he made a management decision to leave Edith’s relationships with the famous out of the film, but I would have enjoyed it much more had he made the film a more factual telling of her life. What’s the point of leaving out Cocteau and Montand and the myriad other famous people with whom she moved? These are people that moviegoers and Piaf fans want to see. The omission by Dahan of these people who were essential parts of Edith’s life substantially diminishes the film.

In the film, Edith is burdened by terrible selfish parents. Her mother was a street singer who cared more about her singing than she did about Edith. This part is undoubtedly true. Her father returned from the war and placed Edith with her grandmother, who worked as a cook in a brothel in Normandy and for two years Edith lived there. In the film, after she had developed a close relationship with one of the girls, the fictional Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), he brutally withdrew her and treated her much like an indentured servant for him as he worked as a contortionist in the circus. Edith finally ended up singing on the street for money at around age 19. In fact, Edith and her father had a pretty good relationship and she worked with him for around five years before she left to sing on the streets when she was 15.

She was discovered by Leplée, who finally got her into a position where she could sing for good money and, more important, fame. Even so, according to this film her life was a constant living hell. After Leplée was murdered, she was unfairly implicated and fell to the depths again, only to be rescued by Raymond Asso (Marc Barbé), a friend of Leplée, who trained her how to become a professional.

Exacerbating the depression into which one is plunged viewing this, Dahan has chosen to tell the story with constant flashbacks and flashforwards. We see Edith near the end of her life struggling to get through a concert. Then we see her as a young girl. Then we see her in her prime. Back and forth so much you get dizzy.

There is a big factual gaffe near the end of the film. We are told by a graphic that Edith and her entourage are driving to California in 1955. The only problem is that they are driving a 1956 Chevy convertible. Oops!

Dahan also almost totally ignores Piaf’s height, or lack thereof. She was only 4’8” tall. Her father was also extraordinarily short, only 5 feet even. But in the film, she looks normal height and he actually looks fairly tall. This is an egregious omission, almost as bad as leaving out Montand and Cocteau and all the rest. One of Edith’s allures, one of the reasons she was called the “little sparrow,” is because she was so short but had such a powerful voice.

Regardless of 140 minutes of constant depression watching this film, Cotillard gives a mesmerizing, Oscar®-deserving performance. She is probably more beautiful than the diminutive Piaf as a young woman, but the way she looks near the end (Piaf was only 47 when she died) is a remarkable feat of makeup wizardry by Didier Lavergne). In French.

May 9, 2007