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
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.
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.
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