Finally, the French found someone who could play the life of Edith Piaf. And so, they have made the biopic to end all biopics, the weepie to end all weepies: La Vie en Rose. I don't know about my fellow moviegoers, but I bawled through the entire film. Just knowing they were going to save that magnificent anthem, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, for the very end, made me bawl with anticipation. As the young Piaf sang the first bars of Milord, I dissolved in a puddle of tears from which I did not recover. La Piaf has this effect on me. Her singing reduces me to a quivering mound of nerves. There are two other singers that do this to me: Dinah Washington and Chavela Vargas. With Washington I just bawl inconsolably, even if she's singing a happy tune. Actually, even worse if she's singing a happy tune. With Chavela, it's Mexican heartache, it hurts.
I have a theory about why I cried throughout La Vie en Rose, a movie that borders spectacularly on the cheesy. I heard Piaf's music in my childhood and to hear it again in almost sensurround brings, not specific memories, but a whole waves of the past back to the surface. Hence, I bawl.
Marion Cotillard, the young woman who plays Piaf, has, on top of a huge amount of talent, balls of fire and ovaries of steel. Of platinum.
Who would want to step in those shoes? Who would want to embody a beloved national myth? What if she failed? In France, they would not have forgiven it. Here, people are much less passionate about such things.
Actors who have been asked to inhabit the lives of the very great are mostly mired in a thankless job; a phyrric victory at best. Particularly because as a rule, biopics suck. If they are biopics about talented artists, they tend to suck even more. Think of Robert Downey in Chaplin. Or Will Smith in Ali. Marion Cotillard's is probably the most fierce, convincing, fearless, courageous performance I have ever seen. It is also completely over the top, as is the movie, but that seems to fit. Apparently, Edith Piaf had a truly rotten life. A life of tragedy made for the movies. And if there ever was someone over the top, that was Piaf.
Olivier Dahan, who wrote and directed, could have used some discipline in the telling. For a French film, La Vie en Rose is quite a mess. There is none of the elegant restraint and brilliant storytelling one is accustomed in French quality films. This is meant to be a blockbuster, American style. But since it's French, it can't be all straightforward and bourgeois, and the result is all over the place. Not so much jumping back and forth in the chronology of events, but sloppiness in the storytelling, a camera with needless Parkinson's disease and a bit de trop in the histrionics of it all. It completely ignores WWII, her relationship with Yves Montand, and other important milestones and quirks of her life. Prague substitutes for New York, and you can tell. The New York scenes are particularly inauthentic. Characters are introduced and then unceremoniously dropped never to appear again, etc. But there are some great French actors like Sylvie Testud as Momone, Piaf's best friend, Gerard Depardieu, who appears for all of like one minute and is as always, grand and alive, and Emmanuelle Seigner as Titine, the whore who loved Edith as a child.
If you surrender to the power of Piaf, the movie almost works, because Cotillard makes it happen, because it is a great, terrible story. And because it's the voice of Piaf that sings.