I think there might be a misprint on my DVD of Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose. Allegedly, the sleeve tells me that the film will relate “the extraordinary life of Edith Piaf.” I’m certain that the printers meant to write, “the extraordinarily awful life of Edith Piaf”, but some delinquent accidentally deleted that key qualifier.
The biography within relates the tale of the tragic chanteuse Piaf, whose life ended in just 48 years, her remarkable vocal talents matched only by her remarkable implosion from booze and depression. However, such an end was only fitting for someone who was abandoned by their mother, raised for half of her childhood in a brothel and the other half in a circus, boyfriended young by a pimp who demanded money in exchange for the privilege of not forcing her into prostitution, and riddled by poor health her entire life. When, La Vie en Rose isn’t chronicling just how luck-forsaken Piaf’s life was, Dahan’s extraordinary film somehow slides in one of the most convincing stories of redemption ever to appear on the silver screen.
La Vie en Rose tracks Piaf from her infancy to her death, continually alternating between an account of her youth and rise to fame and her last years. The plot is broken down into essentially four segments: Piaf as a child cared for by prostitutes and acrobats, Piaf as a transient teen street performer, Piaf as a rising and cresting chanteuse on both the Parisian and international stage, and her decline into an early death.
She is surrounded by a cast of often questionable individuals trying to profit from the hard-headed, frail woman’s talents. The influence of her childhood and her compatriots leads Édith into substance abuse, the negative effects of which end in her failing liver. Despite the blanket tragedy of her story, La Vie en Rose manages to find beauty in Piaf’s tale, often forgoing its stunning soundtrack for silence to concentrate on Piaf’s fragile strength and tumultuous faith.
This path is filmically paved by breathtaking cinematography featuring some of the most proficient use of shallow focus and telephoto optics that this reviewer has witnessed. At one point, Dahan shows Edith performing in a canted extreme close-up with just her red lips sharp against desaturated blurred, cheeks. Later, a young Piaf is depicted out of focus behind crisply rendered fauna. Entire books on composition and focal length could be written on these two shots alone.
The script is so natural that the hand of the writer is unnoticeable throughout the film’s duration. However, the dialogue could have been penned by Danielle Steel and Marion Cotillard, even though that wouldn’t make it any less convincing. Cotillard’s performance as the madly idiosyncratic Piaf is unnerving spotless. Her movements, dialect, and expressions are not only multifaceted and expressive, they perfectly capture Piaf. The transformation is either the ultimate testament of Cotillard’s acting chops or Dahan’s directorial prowess (my money is on a combination of the two). Cotillard simultaneously relates the harsh obstinacy and generally acerbic behavior of the songstress while managing to drip humanity and evoke pathos at every turn.
Does the film have any faults? Of course it does, at times falling into the traditional pitfalls of biopics. At two hours and 20 minutes, the pleasantly slow pace of the film begins to overstay its welcome. While never boring, at around 100 minutes you will wonder just how many more times Piaf can be slighted by felicity. Furthermore, Dahan allows too few sequences of light emotional climate. Nearly every cut leads us into tears, disasters, and fierce passion. A few more happy or even not miserable passages would aid in the pacing and give the slight boost the film would need to reach the heights of perfection.
The special features of this film solidify La Vie en Rose as a need to buy for any fan’s collection, an engaging featurette on how Cotillard got into character nicely complementing the film itself. Although often painfully dismal in story, La Vie en Rose wields misery in such a capable fashion that it becomes beautiful. Set up with exemplary filmmaking and Marion Cotillard’s soon-to-be legendary performance, Dahan’s film is sure to make its graceful way into the cinema canon.