LA VIE EN ROSE directed by Olivier Dahan, written by Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman, with Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner and Gérard Depardieu. A TVA Films release. 140 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (June 8). Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
When Grace Jones sang La Vie En Rose, she pushed the song's self-dramatizing drag queen glory straight to the fore. But it was there already in Edith Piaf.
The Little Sparrow performed no role better than her own tragic life, and that may be the most satisfying lens through which to watch the new Piaf biopic. Pleasingly overheated, the film leaves most audiences gasping for breath. And in an astounding impersonation/performance, Marion Cotillard as Piaf is radically self-conscious. This is a diva who throws herself across the tracks of other people's lives, dying to make an impression.
Director Olivier Dahan serves up a concentrated cocktail of giddiness and torment, charting the life of the legendary French chanteuse from Dickensian childhood through massive stardom to premature decline. Piaf died a physical wreck at 47, after having lived through a spell of blindness as a girl, a child who died in infancy, an addiction to morphine and a heart broken by every man who entered her life. Drama was the constant.
But instead of following a tragic arc, La Vie En Rose shuttles drunkenly between years, jutting infant Piaf against middle age against youth. Beginning in 1959 with a collapse onstage in New York, the film flits through her life as if pursuing a kind of deathbed impressionism. The sliced-up chronology means La Vie En Rose never gathers the emotional momentum it could.
Still, Cotillard is a marvel as Piaf, transformed utterly from the perfect creamy angles of her real-life beauty as a French actress. This is an especially surprising performance because French actors don't generally go for the tortured physical transformation that wins Oscars for Brits, Americans and Australians. But Cotillard's work here is in the Anglo-American school physically demanding, fully inhabited and played without an ounce of vanity.
She nails the impulsive, marionette moves of Piaf's body and the tight, forceful vibrato of her speaking voice. That voice performance flows easily into the songs, which use Piaf's original recordings.
This movie is a freight train pulling boxcar after boxcar of showstoppers. It can get exhausting, especially without a clear emotional line to serve as a grounding horizon. But anyone willing to be swept away on Dahan's locomotive of performance will love the rush.
And no one can deny the sheer persuasive force of Cotillard's work. It's easily on a par with what Jamie Foxx or Charlize Theron did lately to win Oscars.
Let's see how she does next February.