Saturday, November 20, 2010

LA VIE EN ROSE (2007): Edith Piaf

A movie is special to me if it is memorable and coaxes me to discover something new.  I believe that I will remember having watched la Vie en Rose for sometime into the future, and it did make me perceive an appreciation on my part of a form of entertainment I never previously had any interest in whatsoever.  For lack of a better term, call that form of entertainment “Cabaret.”  Now there are those who feel the need to criticize a movie because in some way or another it falls short of that person’s definition of perfection.  And la Vie en Rose is too disjointed to be called perfect in any traditional sense.  Yet the movie tells a powerful though mostly depressing story of a performer that is too much like other performers of her time, i.e., Judy Garland and Billie Holiday.  Yet this disturbed entertainer is so strikingly human in the film, even when her flaws were most evident, that to critique this movie on style only evidences a mind as closed as a bag of cement.
Per the movie, Edith Piaf (Piaf meaning “little sparrow”), at age 3 (played by Manon Chavallier) and living in Paris, was abandoned by her alcoholic mother, Annetta (Clotilde Courau), who made most of her money while singing on the streets.  Her father, Louis Gassion (Jean Paul Rouve), upon returning from the war took his daughter (now played by Pauline Burlet) with her while performing acrobatic feats in the circus.  Louis had Edith sing by his side to pull in a little extra cash.  Eventually, Louis abandons Edith with his own mother who also happens to be a Madame in a brothel.  Here a kind hearted and religious prostitute looks her after by the name of Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner).  Edith, due to an ailment common at the time, was blind and Titine taught Edith to pray to Saint Teresa for guidance.  Edith’s father eventually returns and takes Edith away from the brothel.  Louis tries making money by performing his stunts on the street, but he discovers that it is his daughter’s singing voice that brings the most money in.
Edith Piaf grows up to be very much like her mother and makes money singing on the streets and spends much of her time in bars with her friend, Momone (Sylvia Testud).  Like her mother, the one child she ever has she abandons.  (We learn later that the child died of meningitis at the age of two.)  Eventually, a nightclub owner notices her by the name of Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) who exposes Edith to many promoters in show business.   But soon after becoming famous, Louis Leplee was murdered by underworld gangsters and Edith is blamed for this.  Eventually, the scandal and the chance to make money elsewhere brought Edith across the ocean to New York.  Now famous, she strikes up a romance with the great fighter, Marcel Cerdan (Jean Pierre Martins), who besides being a contender and later middleweight champion of the world, also happens to be married and with three children.  Edith, who seems to be rather accepting of the situation, claims Marcel to be her only love.  So in love is Edith that Momone, her friend for more than twenty years and who probably has more than just sisterly feelings for Edith, is jealous to a degree that Edith feels their friendship must be broken off.  Edith’s relationship with Marcel ends tragically as Marcel is killed in a plane crash in 1949 while in training to win back the middleweight title that had been taken away from him (coincidentally by Jake La Motta of Raging Bull fame).  Edith is devastated.  Soon after she is involved in a series of car accidents, becomes addicted to morphine, and tries to find peace in a number of unsatisfactory relationships with younger men.
Only forty-four years old by 1959, but Edith’s health is failing.  She is demanding, her temper is short, and her attempts to find a cure for her addiction completely fail.  Only two things bring her any real happiness: her prayers to Saint Teresa and her voice when performing her songs.  Almost to the end of her life she continued to sing, and she always sang with passion – sometimes passionate to the point of even being detrimental to her health.  She died in October of 1963, and though her life had been so very tragic in the end she only dreamed of the good she had seen.
In one respect, Edith was an enigma.  She loved Paris and never felt like she left it, even while living in America – a country she never seemed comfortable with.  Strangely, the movie skips over one extremely significant portion of Edith’s life: World War II.  For the real life Edith Piaf performed for German forces.  She may or may not have worked for the French Resistance as she claimed.  She may or may not have saved a Jewish evacuee.  We don’t know about this part of her story and I’m guessing the director, Oliver Dahan, knew nothing about it either.  Probably, he stuck to that portion of the story that made Edith seem like so many other performers.  As the recent film biopics of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash will attest, there is nothing really new about this story.  We know from her circumstances from very early in her life that Edith Piaff’s story would not always be happy.  It probably would seem remarkable to some that she found any joy if life at all.  Yet from viewing Marion Cotilard’s incredible performance, the story as told in this movie never seems fabricated.  I don’t recall ever having heard an actual recording of Edith Piaf singing.  In the movie la Vie en Rose, with most of the dialogue being in French with English subtitles and most of the songs being sung without any subtitles at all, Cotilard’s passion is enough to enjoy what is being sung.  Besides the death of Cerdan, we don’t even know the fate of any other major character in the film.  We almost forget about them because this movie is so dominated by the personality of one particular character.
To me, though 140 minutes in length, the movie moved quickly.  However, everyone will not enjoy la Vie en Rose - not even those people who have spent their time observing Cabaret performances.  The critics that have not enjoyed this movie seem to discount Cotilard’s performance by stating it in no way approaches the appeal of performances by the real Edith Piaf.  These same critics are probably too much caught up in the past.  That or they are disturbed to discover that the bright side of Edith Piaf’s performances coexisted with a less palatable side to her personality.  Without in anyway romanticizing her, this movie nevertheless makes us care for its main character.  And it makes us appreciate why she was considered one of France’s greatest performers. 
April 4, 2008
© Robert S. Miller 2008

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