La Vie en Rose

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            You don’t have to speak French to love the language. “La Vie en Rose” brings us the music of the language and of the songs of Edith Piaf, a combination that becomes indelible imagery for those of us who do not know France.

            Why is the movie so engrossing? Primarily because it is true. If it were fictional, it would be impossible. Forgive any liberties the filmmakers may have taken; we’re talking here about the essence of a big life presented in a patchwork of non-chronological flashbacks that mimic the chaos that colored Piaf’s whole life. Marion Cotillard has caught Piaf absolutely. Her daring performance is the central wonder of the film. Everything else, including the supporting cast is just fine, but all of it is background to Cotillard’s Piaf.

            Piaf’s mother abandoned her as a child, leaving her in a brothel where she grew ever more sickly and fragile. Her father, a destitute circus contortionist, scooped her up and took her to the streets. “Do something, just do something,” he pressed her. And so, at nine, Piaf opened her mouth and sang “La Marseillaise.” From the streets to a gin mill to music halls, she sang for her supper until Paris took notice.

            As a woman, she became the sum of these early parts – drug addict, alcoholic, prematurely aged. The emotions of early abandonment and later entitlement simply poured forth, outsized and unchecked, from her fragile soul. Even after she assumed the mantle of entitlement befitting a legend, Piaf seemed a heap of broken pieces in a fragile package that stood 4’8”. She died at 47 – wrinkled, worn, and bent from years of abusing herself with drugs and drink. And yet she continued, in that strong, clear voice to sing songs of the despair that reflected the physical and emotional darkness that engulfed her. Commanding as this was, she retained always, the slightly awkward, timid aspect of the early street singer. But she was made of gumption and talent.

            And Marion Cotillard? If you take the time to go to YouTube, you will find short clips of Piaf singing live and will grasp quickly the brilliance of Cotillard’s performance. There are the hand movements, the frightening range of emotion that plays across her face from radiance to petulance to rage, the street singer who was at her core. Whether watching Cotillard or Piaf herself, it is impossible not to think of the awful instability that was her landscape. She knew real joy only with the boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean Pierre Martins) who died in a plane crash that covered the front pages. After that she became addicted to morphine and aged precipitously; improbably, the voice remained and she propelled herself to a last performance. I see I have mixed up Cotillard and Piaf yet again and that is simply because on screen the actress has become Piaf in a dazzling performance that is a gift to the audience.


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