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Why did the American producers decide to rename a foreign film with a foreign title? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose? I guess I understand the decision to use one of Edith Piaf’s more famous songs as the name of the film about her, but they could have gotten away with La Môme (The Kid). Either way La Vie en rose is a heartbreaking story about a woman finding success despite a horrid childhood. With problem after problem growing up, always being kicked to the gutter and taken from those who truly loved her, it might be this abandonment that made her overnight success so potent to her. The portrayal here of Piaf is not one of a great woman. She is actually quite unsympathetic at times, heavy on the ego with sparse flashes of the love that she never received. At times though, we can begin to see inside her head, when she begs to go back on stage after a collapse, she says she must sing one song in order to keep faith in herself. Her voice is the only thing that saved her from the life of solitude and prostitution that otherwise waited. That gift from Saint Theresa was a sacred one to her and she would guard it with her life, no matter how many people were hurt along the way.

Here is a shy young woman, thrust into the limelight with a voice unlike any other. Lauded with praise at every turn, she becomes knowledgeable of her skill and it is a chore to break out of her bad habits when a true performer offers to help her leave the bar scene for the stage. Piaf becomes an international sensation, but it appears that her guardian angel needed something in return for her good fortune. At every turn for the better in her career, only a devastating setback in her personal life awaited. Left with her grandmothers while her parents pursued their dreams of failure, she found herself blinded from infection for a spell; taken from a motherly whore—the one person who truly loved her; stricken with arthritis; involved in a car crash; fingered as an accomplice in the murder of the man who got her off the streets; overcome by jaundice; losing the one man she ever saw as her equal in life; and a death too soon around the age of 50. As she sings in her final moment onscreen, however, she lived with no regrets.

Piaf, as seen here, is the godmother of rock and roll. Between the drugs, the alcohol, the men, the ego, and the Diva requests, she was a star. How much of this hard lifestyle helped in accelerating her deterioration or how much it helped her cope with the pain in order to go on when she couldn’t, who knows? One thing is for certain, though, she had an iron-strong will to continue and never looked back. One pause, one break and she might find herself back on the streets. There was no way that would ever happen.

The story on display is very intriguing and devastating in its mixture of extreme elation and utter suffering. My gripe is with the way the filmmakers decided to show it to us. We are thrown from 1918 to 1963 to 1936 to 1955 onto 1960 without any regard for keeping us, as the audience, grounded at all. I’m not saying it was confusing, in actuality a lot of the transitions made perfect sense. What ends up happening is that it feels like a puzzle hastily thrown together and jumbled up. People crop up that we haven’t seen in forever and you have to really think, “are we back in time or is that him in the present?” Only one instance truly angered me and that is with a hidden tragedy sprung on us right at the end of the film. Talk about probably the most devastating event to happen to her and we get it shown to us on her deathbed almost like the director saying, “You thought she had it bad, listen to this one…” I don’t want to totally dismiss the direction, though, because there are some amazing sequences. The one that shoots to the front of my mind is of a long-take involving Piaf finding out she has been hallucinating and someone she holds dear has passed away. Her fear becomes devastation and complete loss of control as she continues down the hall of her house onto the stage of a theatre, seamlessly spun into a performance. It’s just a gorgeous scene to behold.

While the film itself is lacking, you still need to watch for the amazing performance by Marion Cotillard as Piaf. Say what you will about the Oscar winning makeup allowing her to embody different stages of her life, it is really the Oscar winning performance that sells each moment. The shaking in her crippling years, the drunkenness pretty much every year, the naivete as a young girl, and the slow degradation of her mind in middle age are all portrayed with precision and attention to detail. Sure she is not singing herself, but her actions pull off every performance. When she takes the stage for the first time after leaving the streets we are shown her debut as a true performer. We do not hear the words at all; just the orchestra’s playing. Instead we are shown Cotillard fully transformed into Piaf, onstage, composed, and singing with her beautiful hands, touching each audience member to laughter, jubilation, and tears. A fantastic performance that outshines the film itself, Cotillard alone is why you should take a look at the tragic life of this French Sparrow.

La Vie en rose 7/10

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photography:
[1] Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) and Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) – Photo by Bruno Calvo
[2] Momone (Sylvie Testud), Edit Piaf (Marion Cotillard) and Susanne (Agathe Bodin) – Photo by Bruno Calvo

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