Le ciel bleu sur nous peut s’effondrer,
Et la terre peut bien s’écrouler,
Peu m’importe si tu m’aimes,
Je me fous du monde entier.
— “Hymne a L’Amour”
Angry, needy, and almost painfully lovely, Marion Cotillard’s Édith Piaf fills all emotional space in La Vie En Rose. This seems about right. Famously large in spirit and effect, Piaf here embodies the turmoil and tragedy of her era. This makes her nearly irresistible, but the film around her can’t begin to keep up.
Unimaginatively framed as a series of flashbacks, the biopic introduces Édith as a “sickly” child in 1918. Rescued from her hopeless, half-mad mother (Clotilde Courau) by her father (“Enough!” he laments dramatically, surrounded by filth and darkness), who proceeds to leave her at a Pigalle district brothel he knows well (his mother runs it). While he’s away at war, the bighearted prostitutes dote on the pale-blue-eyed child (played by Manon Chevallier), nursing her through an infection that leaves her mostly blind. While this means she’s preserved from actually seeing the many sex scenes she hears, it also makes her appear frail, as she’s set up to sit in the garden by her favorite caretaker, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner). As the camera takes Titine’s perspective, gazing lovingly on the five-year-old’s exquisite face, the film initiates a pattern it will repeat — Édith as alluring, fabulous, and vaguely disquieting object.
On recovering her sight, 10-year-old Édith (now played by Pauline Burlet) soon reveals as well her extraordinary voice, with the film contriving a scene to underscore its uncanny power. Retrieved by her father Louis (Jean-Paul Rouve) on his return from the front (and desperately upset on being torn from Titine’s arms), she accompanies him during his daily toiling as a sidewalk contortionist. Observing his failure to earn more than a couple of coins, the little girl steps up, belting out “La Marseillaise.” Passersby are moved to leave enough money that the girl learns an important lesson: performing, she can effect some control over her fate.
Cutting back and forth in time, the film connects such moments of revelation with later scenes of anguish and effort. Most often, the different stages are marked by Édith’s changing appearance — she aged agonizingly, suffering from drug habits, arthritis, and eventually, cancer. In 1959 (just four years before her death at age 47), Édith is preparing for another performance, in a New York recording studio, with a wall full of Billie Holiday photos behind her (yes, the two artists were similarly brilliant and tortured, both addicts, both afflicted by hardship).
When the film cuts back to Piaf’s past — that is, her route to this sad-but-also-admirable scene, as she struggles to put on her signature red lipstick with shaky hand — she has left her alcoholic father, and taken up street performing with Mômone (Sylvie Testud) (one aspect of their lifelong though intermittent relationship is hinted at in a scene where Mômone wears a man’s suit, though the movie does not take this insinuation further). Literally spotted on a street corner by nightclub owner Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu), Édith is invited to audition.
Leplée understands what he sees: Édith is a luminous talent, if untrained and unruly. He conjures her soon-to-be-famous stage name — Piaf, or “the little sparrow” — and arranges for singing and performance lessons. Though her career is briefly threatened when Leplée is murdered and she is arrested as an accessory, Édith presses on, the film insisting on her toughness alongside her vulnerability. Even as a star, adored and pampered, arrogant and self-righteous, she remains needy, Cotillard making each turn in the artist’s remarkable life convincing, working against a lurchingly episodic script.
Of the many segments offered up here, Édith’s affair with Algerian boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) is among the most poignant. Though he is married, they carry on a splendid sort of romance, ardent and tender, as each pursues a demanding career while appreciating each other’s particular passionate charms. Just as her well-known smallness is set against his largeness, their personalities also seem, at first, to be opposite: turbulent and impatient, she’s alternately elegant and brutal, while he tends to be gentle and sweet, a self-described farmer at heart. For their first date in New York 1947, he takes her to a joint that she says “smells like wet dog” (Piaf has quite definitively abandoned her underclass roots); Marcel moves them to a “nice” restaurant instead, where they order pastrami sandwiches anyway.
Marcel’s death in a 1949 plane crash — a last minute flight he takes in response to her beseeching phone call — is rendered in a kind of set piece, rather stunningly conceived in a way to draw you inside her mind. As she wakes in her New York hotel bedroom, she sees him with her, then builds herself into a rage when her assistants don’t bring coffee on her command. As she makes her way through the many rooms of her apartment, the camera following along, she discovers her secretary weeping, and other subordinates who seem almost frozen in time. It’s only a few minutes into this scene that she realizes the truth of what has happened, the camera increasingly careening, to indicate her reluctant realization, as her loss comes crashing upon her. It’s fantastic, roiling melodrama, and yet Cotillard’s performance grounds Édith’s overwhelming grief, making the aesthetically overheated emotions mesmerizing and physical.
As the film has it, Édith never quite recovers from this moment. (Indeed, she calls out for “Marcel” on her death bed, referring at once to her lost lover and her lost child, a life detail the film doesn’t explore much at all.) Her career takes her all over the world, she meets movie stars (Marlene Dietrich [Caroline Silhol] makes a 30-second appearance here, pronouncing Édith’s voice “the soul of Paris”), abuses friends and employees while also feeling intense loyalties, and yearns desperately for love. Following a near-fatal car crash in 1951, her physical ailments make it more and more difficult to perform, and yet she shows up anyway, collapsing on stage and coming back.
Such fierce spirit makes this Édith Piaf magnificent. “I believe in love,” she insists, resilient despite all, losing and simultaneously finding herself in her art (the film uses Piaf’s own recordings, with Cotillard lip-synching). “I must sing,” she says, when a doctor advises against it. “I have no choice.” And with that, she has him give her yet another injection so she will be able to go on. Erratic and disjointed as it may be, La Vie En Rose is nonetheless carried by Piaf, as beloved object if not an individual in her own right. While it doesn’t grant much in the way of insight into this much-mythologized star, it suggests there remain other Piaf stories to tell.