August 16, 2007

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La Vie en Rose (PG-13)
Edith Piaf, a destructive mess with a knock-your-socks-off voice, lives a life that is full and travels each and ev’ry highway in La Vie en Rose, a movie about the French singer doing it her way.

OK, she didn’t sing “My Way,” but I haven’t the faintest idea what the lyrics to her most famous song, “La Vie en Rose,” are. In watching La Vie en Rose, I also regularly got confused about which of the men were which (is that the mentor she used to sleep with or the band member she used to sleep with?), and there were a lot. This barrier of language, however, is no barrier to enjoying this fascinating movie.

Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) didn’t actually get the “Piaf” (which means “sparrow”) until she was beginning a career as a performer. As a child, she was lucky to be called anything at all by her neglectful parents (her mother ran off to become a singer in Istanbul; her father, a former circus performer, spent many of her formative years fighting World War I). Her maternal grandmother “cares” for Edith until Edith’s father (Juan-Paul Rouve) decides that life with his mother, a cook at a brothel, would probably be better for young Edith. As it turns out, it briefly is and Edith gets a mother figure among a few of the prostitutes. While there, she is blind for a few years and then cured, possibly the result of a miracle from Sainte Therese. Her father eventually carts her off to the circus and then to street performing, where Edith first begins to sing in front of a crowd. Eventually, a teenage Edith is earning money for food and drink by singing on street corners, which is where nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) discovers her.

Edith rises to her nationwide fame relatively slowly — her own bad habits and behavior always set her struggling against those who might help her. She amasses a number of male friends and lovers but her true love seems to be Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), a famous married boxer with whom she is her most soft and vulnerable (naturally, it doesn’t end well). Along the way, even as years of drinking and drugs and the effects of several car accidents start to destroy her health and her ability to perform, we are able to perceive her blazing talent and her voice, which continues to get richer and more soulful as she ages.

You don’t have to know anything about Edith Piaf going into the movie (other then a vague name recognition, I didn’t really know her) to get sucked into her story. It’s melodramatic and romantic in the most tragic possible way. It’s full of hardship and vulgarity and personal destruction. It’s, basically, every episode of VH1’s Behind the Music or E! True Hollywood Story but with an infinitely better soundtrack. Edith, or at least her character here, is a fighter but a friendly, charming one who is able to capture people’s affections even when she is somewhat disagreeable. The movie makes a point of keeping her as she was. Cotillard is obviously an attractive woman but the movie keeps a certain roughness about Edith and doesn’t let her become too Hollywood (Edith, the character, actually complains about her negative reviews in America, saying they expect a Hollywood woman instead of a real Frenchwoman). We see her bad teeth, increasingly hunched back and all and still see her beauty.

Believability is this movie’s biggest strength. I felt like I was getting a real life story; whether it’s exactly Edith’s or not hardly matters. Cotillard so completely embodies this woman — damaged, fearless, desperate for love, scared — that I was fascinated with finding out how her life unfolded. She made me believe that what could have seemed soap-operatic beginnings and nearly histrionic emotions could actually produce this complex but powerful personality that had enough optimism in spite of everything to still see life in pink. B

Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements. Directed by Olivier Dahan and written by Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman, La Vie en Rose is two hours and 20 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Picturehouse. The movie is currently in a run at Wilton Town Hall Theatre and is in French with English subtitles.