Marion CotillardSylvie TestudPascal Greggory
Ever since the New Wave movement of the 1960s, French cinema has garnered a well-deserved reputation for sensuality and beauty, and La Vie En Rose is the latest offering to achieve this charismatic sense of splendour with aplomb. A biography of the French singer Edith Piaf (enticingly played by Marion Cotillard), the film drips sexuality from every frame, but like so many attractive things, it has trouble finding real depth beneath the surface.
Using a non-linear format, the film cuts between the singer’s youth and later years, potentially finding reasons for the disruptive behaviour of her final years in the pivotal occurrences of her youth. Opening at the height of her career in the 1960s, the film then jumps back forty years to a young Piaf, abandoned by her parents to her brothel-running Grandmother. We follow her from discovery as a street performer to stardom, brushing with the mob and the law along the way. Finding love with a married wrestler, only to lose him in a plane crash, Piaf spirals into drug addiction and, ultimately, death.
In a style that the French have mastered unequivocally, the film manages to tell most of its story through colour and gesture, rather than the over-analytical scripting we’ve become used to from American film. The feeling of loneliness, and the glossed-over problems of Piaf’s later years are perfectly articulated through the artificial lighting and some grotesque makeup. This is juxtaposed with her younger scenes, which are shot more naturally, in pseudo-realistic grey/green cinematography.
Piaf’s music dominates the film. Certain lyrics are flagged up in a clumsily pointed way, which implies that the director, Olivier Dahan, occasionally loses faith in his ability to drive the narrative without unnecessary explanation. However, the depiction of Piaf’s character is left largely to her music, her voice an oxymoron of power and beseeching desperation for those listening to understand and love her. The camera work is reminiscent of the New Wave masters, with sweeping tracks and hand-held input, and so few close ups that when one does occur, it seems to trap the character unflinchingly.
While Cotillard’s performance is disarmingly charismatic, and her vocals are outstanding, she becomes grotesquely unstable too early on. Her portrayal of the older Piaf is contrived, and fails to evoke the sympathy that a cancer victim should. Gerard Depardieu, on the other hand, comes as a refreshing change to an English audience used to seeing him in questionably comedic roles. Looking a lot more comfortable in his own tongue, his portrayal of Piaf’s murdered mentor is understated yet surprisingly emotive.
In terms of style, La Vie cannot be faulted, so richly layered are its mis en scene and cinematography. However, it disappoints in terms of content, and at 140 minutes drags unbearably. Normally, the journey of a film would involve finding out what broke the protagonist, but Piaf breaks down so early on in the film that it is no longer a mystery, and nothing overly interesting happens later on to make up for that.
Frustratingly, the film completely ignores the political and historical setting of Piaf’s life, as well as her involvement in the French Resistance, during which she was responsible for the liberation of several French POWs. Everything is reduced to a love story, diminishing the potential significance of the film. This in turn clouds the climax of her final song, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (“I Regret Nothing”). In a political light, one can see why the French took this song to their hearts, while in La Vie it becomes an ironic, pitiful song of denial, sung by a woman whose life has turned sour by her selfish and reckless behaviour.