dir: Olivier Dahan
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Outside of France this biopic about Edith Piaf was called La Vie en rose, one of her most famous songs. In France itself the flick was called La Môme, being her nickname, “the sparrow”. In Australia it should really have been called The Miserable Fucking Life of a Street Urchin who becomes Edith Piaf and Dies a Wreck in her Forties.
It has a certain ring to it, a certain je ne sais quoi, wouldn’t you say? It certainly would be both accurate and illuminating.
Despite knowing absolutely nothing about Edith Piaf and any other French singer of her era or magnitude, I have to say that the story as presented in La Vie en rose is ridiculously familiar. It’s not just because the story of the rise, fall and comeback of artists tends to have the same trajectory, it’s because the filmmakers, whether American, Hollywoodian or French, tend to create the same narrative and use the same plot devices to tell their story.
The personal, actual details of their lives are comfortably wedged into the pre-ordained format, so the whole story, whether it’s about the rags-to-riches tale of a Mongolian throat singer, or the rags-to-riches story of a member of New Kids on the Block, it’s all going to be pleasantly familiar.
Well, at least to anyone who was hoping for a superficial, bland experience. I pretty much learnt nothing more than that Edith Piaf had a sucky life, then achieved a lot of success, which meant she drank heaps and did drugs, treated people around her like shit, believed her own press, then died before she should have.
In fact, what I really learnt is that poor people are the least able to handle great success because they have no impulse control and don’t accept any limits on their personal behaviour. So naturally they are ruined by it.
Also, Edith Piaf was a horrible woman, physically and psychologically. But she could sing, gods, could she sing.
I’m being overly hard on the film, because it’s really not that bad. It’s just that having watched enough of these flicks means that, more than knowing anything about the individuals, the films about them (whether it be Ray, Walk the Line or Seabiscuit) use foreshadowing, signposting and elliptical constructs to tell stories so predictably that I really can predict everything that’s going to happen minutes before it actually does.
There are also curious absences throughout the story (like a sweet little jump-ahead that occurs, as slowly doth realisation dawn upon you that any reference to World War II has been left out), many of which serve to superficialise the experience further. The circumstances under which her signature songs come to her could not be more unintentionally comical: guy walks into room, is introduced, sits down at the piano and plays, she stops him after five seconds or so, and thus is history made.
Great gaps covering her marriages and relationships are almost clumsily manhandled out of existence with cumbersome edits jumping backwards and forwards from the primary storyline, all with the intention of not ending on a downer. Sure, we know she’s going to die (she’s already been dead a long time now), but the makers struggle to find a way to make her death a triumph.
The same plot device used in Walk the Line, of framing the story of Johnny Cash’s life through showing a glimpse of, and then leading the rest of the film up to the concert at Folsom Prison, is trundled out here, except in this circumstance Edith is struggling to perform at the Hotel Olympia. It is alluded to constantly and built up as if her legacy will be secured, her achievements finally recognised if she just musters up the strength and intestinal fortitude to perform one last time.
It’s ludicrous in the extreme, even if you want her to get there in the end. The knowledge that she ended up performing at the Olympia for years after that crowning achievement takes some of the glow off what is therefore a pretty faked-up milestone.
Her relationship with the boxer and national hero Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) is given screen time, as she claims him to be the love of her life, but what of her three marriages and countless other relationships? Were they worried we’d think she was a bit of a slut if they’d shown some of the other aspects of her life?
By far the most successful parts of the film occur in the first hour, as the grimness of her early life post the Great War stand in stark and believable contrast to the Edith depicted in the rest of the flick. In that first part, the child actresses playing the character have to really on their eyes and facial expressions to tell her story. The bits of her childhood lived in her grandmother’s brothel and on the streets are particularly strong.
A very strong scene occurs in a dive where Edith and her friend Mômone (Sylvie Testud) are being harassed for booze money by Edith’s alcoholic mother, who abandoned her very early on. The complexity of this scene, underlined by the mother begging, rejecting, then retrieving the money Edith gives her, is telling, in that it is a theme carried only so far. From this desperate living, this scrambling existence, she is propelled to great heights, but she never feels that far away from the gutter, or from the grasping hands of the parasites who would leech off her.
Whether she was a screeching harridan in real life or not, I don’t doubt that Cotillard, who has received plenty of plaudits, a plethora of platitudes for her performance as Piaf, has approximated the great singer to the best of her ability. The prime problem I have is that she is so much larger than life, and so much more over the top than any of the other actors around her, that it’s like watching Pauly Shore or Jim Carrey playing Hamlet in Macbeth.
Or something like that. Maybe she wasn’t that over the top, maybe I was just in an adverse mood, but she does unbalance the film. All I know is that the film made a major mistake for my money at the one hour mark, at a moment that’s meant to be a pinnacle for the character, and it was a bit downhill from there for my money.
After the murder of the man who ‘discovered’ her singing on the streets (a comparatively subdued performance from Gerard Depardieu), she hits the skids before trying to make her comeback and make the jump, the evolutionary leap forward from cabaret singer to music hall performer (akin to the difference in our world between playing pub gigs versus playing to stadiums). As the lights go up, and she makes that transition, as her iconic image goes all iconic, the music swells, and we are greeted with her silence as some other pleasant elevator music plays out over this alleged crucial moment.
That doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all. If it was that big a deal, and her performance was that transcendent, why wouldn’t you try to show what happened, without using shorthand to tell us THAT it happened?
It felt like the editing of the flick has been handed over to the kinds of Hollywood hack editors that can turn any story, no matter how personal and how revealing, into a virtual Hallmark card of shallow feeling and superficiality.
All the same, I didn’t hate the flick. Piaf is an intriguing figure with an intriguing history and legacy, and there were a fair few moments where I abandoned my cynicism and was fascinated by the story and the character. Then the editing would intrude with yet another flash back or forward, and I’d be reminded that I was watching a barely-standard biopic, instead of an engaging story about someone who once lived and died.
The one sequence that betrayed an amount of directorial virtuosity involves a continuous, interweaving shot in Piaf’s apartment, as she thinks, and we believe, she is playing host to her beloved boxer. From bedroom to kitchen, to bedroom and lounge room, and most surprising, to the stage, it encapsulated the theme that only sporadically works elsewhere throughout the flick: she lived her art, her pains and sorrows were in her songs, and her songs were in her life.
They muddle the circumstances surrounding her signature song, which most people would probably recognise from various coffee commercials, being Je ne regrette rien, or I Regret Nothing, but it still had to be heard. By the stage this event occurs, Piaf is as much of a wreck physically and mentally that she is barely recognisable as a human, and looks more like Bilbo Baggins towards the end of Lord of the Rings. Very very tired and worn quite thin.
I wanted to like it more, but it’s really quite vapid, and it left me more perplexed than anything else, to the extent that I find the ejaculatory praise the film has received almost incomprehensible, except for the fact that critics love biopics, whether it’s Truman Capote, Edith Piaf or Johnnie Holmes. But I don't go crazy for them. Oh no.
Approach with caution.
6 times I would call the song Yeah, I Regret Plenty my signature tune out of 10
“I can’t? Than what’s the point of being Edith Piaf ?” - La Vie en Rose