Tuesday, September 27, 2011

La Vie en Rose - Little Sparrow of France

Edith Piaf has been the beautiful voice of France through the last century and her magic continues to enthrall the world long since her demise in 1963. 'La Vie en Rose' titled after her famous love ballad, which till this day is synonymous with the romance of Paris, is a biopic based on the personal, often tragic life of this great songstress. Directed and co-written by Olivier Dahan and portrayed with tremendous gusto and heart by Marion Cotillard (winner of the AcademyAward for Best actress), this movie flits its way through the corridors of time, moving back and forth through Edith's tumultuous life.

Born into poverty, abandoned by her mother, a street singer and her father, a circus performer, her formative years were spent in her grandmother's brothel. One of the prostitutes Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) adopts her and nurses Edith through blindness due to Keratitis. Miraculously cured by a visit to St. Therese's shrine, Edith is then snatched away from Titine and goes to live with her father. The beauty in her voice becomes apparent when she is asked to perform an act with her father on the streets. Years later, she is discovered singing on the streets by a nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) who gives her the name of Piaf, the little sparrow. At 4ft 8inches, the name became her frame.

We see the rise of that amazingly clear full throated voice, her training of the finer nuances of singing and becoming a national treasure even as her personal life is marred by the tragic loss of her one true love, middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean Pierre Martins), followed by an accident which renders her with arthritic pains, leading to morphine addiction. Even as her body fails and ages prematurely, the voice remains intact leading her to fame in America. Olivier Dahan wisely doesn't stick to a chronological rendition but flirts with events in no particular order. Piaf's rise, the tragic loss of her love, the addiction and its consequences, to her eventual demise and her final performance, at Paris's Olympia, of the great 'Non je ne regrette rien' are woven skillfully into the tapestry of a turbulent life led. The film embodies the chaos in her life by wildly flitting through these chapters.

What words do I have for Marion Cotillard's performance that have not been said before? She disappears so effectively into Edith Piaf's skin that I could trace no sign of Cotillard herself in the movie. Her resemblance to the singer is uncanny and one can imagine the rumbustious nature of Piaf from Cotillard's  take on her. The Oscar was the jewel in her performance's crown. The playback was Piaf's own voice (though some of the earlier numbers were performed by other singers), which the actress effortlessly lip syncs to. Some great names, familiar to a larger audience outside France, playing supporting roles are the very talented Gerard Depardieu (Les Miserables, Green card) and the beautiful, enigmatic Emmanuelle Seigner, who has been the great filmmaker Roman Polanski's wife and muse (Frantic, Bitter Moon).

Dahan skillfully handles the screenplay and Cotillard's performance. Especially effective are the handling of sequences such as the news of Marcel's death, the latter portions of Piaf's life and on her death bed when she has strong recollections of a buried past before the fame. When she sits as a prematurely old woman, knitting a sweater on a wonderful sunny day, on a beach giving an interview, her answer to the advice she would give to a woman, a girl, a child is 'love'. That might be the key scene of the movie as it carries the essence of a life forever in the quest of love.

Biopics have been done to death. The story mostly is the same. Overcoming of odds to become a star and then the downfall and maybe a final comeback, that is the thread common to most movies under this category. I avoid biopics for this very reason. But, Edith Piaf's voice is too great an attraction for me not to want to understand her story. The force of Marion Cotillard's rendition of Piaf combined with an exciting, at times even confusing screenplay, successfully takes us into the heart of a little woman with one of the strongest, purest voices and provides a glimpse of the love and sorrow that she so mesmerizingly poured out into making the songs that she did. I still have the melody of 'La Vie en Rose' on a constant hum in my head and my heart.

Originally released in 2007
Available on DVD
In French with English subtitles
Academy Award winner for Best Actress in a Leading Role
My Rating: 4/5

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