Reviews Too Late: La Vie en Rose
Not me, obviously.
La Vie en Rose is a biopic about Piaf, and it's not a cheerful film. It's very long and it's filled with misery, despair, abandonment, pain, murder, depression, illness, addiction, death, and tragedy. This is perhaps the ultimate movie for people who want reasons to be thankful that they're not superstars.
Piaf's life sucked. She was abandoned by both parents and partly raised in a brothel. As a child she was blinded by an infection that lasted seven years. She was only four feet ten inches tall. Her child died of meningitis, the impresario who discovered her was murdered by her gangster friends, the love of her life died in a plane crash, she was crippled by arthritis, addicted to painkillers, and died at the age of forty-seven.
The thing that kept her going was talent and will. In her forties, hunched, in pain, looking thirty years older than her actual age, and barely able to move, she had to be nearly carried to the microphone so that she could sing "Je ne regrette rien."
Brilliantly, one might add.
There are two reasons to see this movie, even if it makes you want to throw yourself off a balcony afterward.
The first is the astounding performance given by Marion Cotillard as Piaf. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for this part, even though the part is in French. How often does the Academy reward an actress performing in a language other than English? (Twice, actually, the first winner being Sophia Loren nearly fifty years ago.)
Cotillard doesn't look anything like Edith Piaf, but she had to play the character from her teen years through her death. The makeup was a miracle, but it was the performance that really made the character come alive. Cotillard captures Piaf's rapture, her agony, and her impish humor. Watching her mobile face reacting to the situations had me astounded and delighted.
The second reason to see the film is a single scene. (Note: spoiler follows) Edith is in New York, and her lover Marcel is in France. She calls him and begs him to visit her.
Next we see her in bed, in the morning. Marcel arrives and climbs into bed with her. They have a brief conversation. Edith is delighted by his appearance, and in a long tracking shot walks through her apartment to the kitchen (passing her lifelong friend Momone on the way, propped in a corner like a mannequin). She makes toast and coffee for two, puts them on a tray, and walks (another long tracking shot) back to the bedroom, for another short conversation with Marcel. There's a huge, beaming smile on her face all this while.
Then Edith remembers she has a present for Marcel, and goes to fetch it. She can't find it, and gets a bit hysterical, opening drawers at random throughout the apartment. Momone and other members of her posse stand around watching. This is all in one take.
Edith demands to know why in hell they're standing around watching while they should be helping to find Marcel's present. Her manager takes her by the shoulders, tells her that she must be brave, and informs her that Marcel has died in a plane crash.
Disbelieving, Edith rushes through the apartment to the bedroom (the camera following). Marcel is gone. She calls out for him and he doesn't answer.
Edith falls apart and races through the apartment screaming. The camera follows her. This goes on for a long while. Right at the point at which we can't really take watching this any longer, she opens a door, and steps out onto the stage of a nightclub.
In a reverse shot, she sings "Hymne a l'Amour" to an empty club, the seats filled only by ghosts.
This scene was such a miracle I had to watch it twice.
It's the only extended scene in the film that suggests the supernatural. (Well okay, Ste. Therese appears briefly in another scene, as a scintillation of light, to cure Piaf's childhood blindness.) The nightclub scene is the only one to be the least bit surreal. But it works. It's perfect.
The scene works as an extended metaphor to show Edith's journey from bliss to tragedy. It works as another metaphor showing how Edith transforms the tragedy of her life into art. It works as a scene showing how another's death can fragment one's existence, and leave a person inconsolable and alienated from their surroundings.
The supernatural element makes it stand out from what is otherwise a grimly realistic rendering of Piaf's life. It makes the viewer stand up and take notice. It's really the best ghost scene I've seen in ages, far more chilling than anything I see in so-called horror films.
I have no idea whether Piaf ever claimed to have encountered Marcel's ghost on the day of his death. It doesn't freakin' matter.
They should be teaching this scene in film classes for the next hundred years.
And--- just to show you how much of a miracle was Marion Cotillard's performance, here's a video of her neither looking nor singing like Piaf.