C’est la vie, ‘la vie en rose’

Edith Piaf, the belle chanteuse de la R

by Sara Nicole Miller

Edith Piaf’s life story reads like the Judy Garlands and the Billie Holidays of the American Golden Era – tormented yet intimately familiar, cobwebbed and splintered by a million worldly fictions. They came and left this earth in a heartbeat, their postmortem narratives forced to fester and refashion themselves in the psychic realm of legend.

“La Vie en Rose”

DIRECTED BY: Olivier Dahan
STARRING: Marion Cotillard, Gérard Depardieu, Pascal Greggory
PLAYING AT: Edina Cinema, 3911 W. 50th St., Edina (651) 649-4416

Enter the swarms of swanky cinephiles and director types, their grandiose ideas about reviving larger-than-life women in tow. They take to the celluloid like artists to canvas; but convention, too frequently, trumps creativity. The melodrama may be lurid, but the narratives are hardly personalized, like a fountain pen font chicken-scratched on po’ man’s cardboard.

Not so with Piaf’s new biopic “La Vie en Rose.” Aesthetically bawdry and chronologically sloshed, director Olivier Dahan paints the brushstrokes of the French songbird’s life in bohemian Technicolor pigments – only the brush tip has been gnawed on and ravaged, poetically, that is.

Loosely translated as “Life in Pink,” the film is unlike most biopics that tend to exist in linear time. Instead, it weaves in and out and through the folds of historical memory with a mosaic, near-hallucinogenic quality. Piaf’s most emotive moments are digested in complete disarray, always disorienting the tyranny of space and time but never betraying the egocentric icon at the center of its frenzied orbit. And in a genre when droning, linear biopics are a dime a dozen, this storm of melodrama is a vaporous retreat into cinematic bliss.

The film scatters her tale amidst the shimmery urban backdrops of post-war Europe and America, as Piaf’s raw, booze-pickled voice and heartbroken street balladry (such as “Milord” and “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien”) morph a young vagrant into an international cabaret star.

But it was Piaf’s inability to gauge her own damage control, both in art and life, which ultimately made her an icon – volcanic love affairs, drug addiction, persistent and raging misery were never in short supply.

The daughter of an acrobat-contortionist father and a café-singer alcoholic mother, Edith’s tropisms toward dysfunction began at an early age, shown in schizoid snapshots of her world in a circus wagon, her world in her grandmother’s bordello parlor. The camera prods the young child. Close-up shots of her sickly, malnourished frame foreshadow the love affair between camera and Edith, Edith and audience, which continues for the film’s duration.

Fast forward to the cluttered, piled-up scenes of young adulthood, where Piaf is seen singing – drunk – on the cobbled avenues of Bellville for francs with her lifelong party pal Momone (Sylvie Testud). Plucked off the street by cabaret manager Louis Leplee (Gérard Depardieu), Piaf is soon fashioned into the belle of Parisian cabaret society.

For Edith, fame turns out to be far from a permanent romp in Euro-Neverland. She is swept away in the cyclone of cabaret gigs, and her instability and addiction swell with the successes of her career. The manic-depressive journey again plunges when lover Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), a middleweight boxing champion, dies in a plane crash. Upon hearing of his death, Edith swaggers and stammers throughout her penthouse in a sort of surrealistic morbid euphoria, captured by a haunting tracking shot that lasts minutes.

Not unlike Piaf’s own life, the film comes off as a mess, albeit a beautiful one. The atmospheric, romanticized cinematography and impressionistic production style saunter through the nostalgic crevices of place and ambient pleasantry – from the coastal highways of retrospective California to bohemian Paris to the post-war sheen of New York City.

The most unfortunate quality of the film is its complete omission of Piaf’s legendary, heroic role in the French Resistance during World War ll. But perhaps it’s best suited as material for another epic in another time.

Even if Piaf was the queen of melodrama, “La Vie en Rose” almost unapologetically consumes itself within its own emotive viscera. Throughout the film, personifications of madness and lust emerge through the papaya-tinged upholstery or Piaf’s own pouty blood red lips, while other rich vintage tones signal mood shifts like the phases of an apocalyptic moon.

It would be uncouth to speak of Piaf’s cinematic epic without paying homage to Marion Cotillard, the French actress who plays her. Cotillard translates her very micro motor skills and mannerisms – from the young street-carouser Edith to the gaunt, balding Edith in Provence – as if she was a reincarnation herself. Her musical cues (lip-synched) are crisp and on-point. In short, she’s perfect for the role.

Piaf leaves the screen as maniacally as she entered it: through an abrupt trail of phantasms and gloom. But no matter, Dahan leaves the smoke cloud of myth above her head undisturbed. And in doing so, out of “La Vie En Rose” seethes a masterpiece.