Sunday, June 24, 2007

Review - La Vie en rose (La môme)

Making a biopic of a famous figure is a tricky proposition. Do you go down the childhood-to-death route, and try to give a full picture of a person in the space of a feature-length movie? Or do you narrow your focus to a particular period in your subject's life, and hope that this method will reveal their inner self in more minute detail than the more expansive film of this type? It's not an easy choice, both approaches have their merits and their faults, but let's not forget the third way: just take a random bunch of incidents from a person's life and throw them at the screen with as much cinematic flair as possible in the hope that something will stick. This is the road Olivier Dahan has ventured down with La Vie en rose, a striking but hugely frustrating account of the tragic life of Edith Piaf.

There's no doubt that Piaf's story merits the celluloid treatment, few artists have packed so many highs and lows into such a tragically short lifetime. Abandoned by her mother at a young age, she found herself living in a brothel run by her paternal grandmother, where she overcame a bout of temporary blindness and formed a close bond with one of the prostitutes. But just when she seemed to have found a sense of stability in her life, Edith was forced to join her father's travelling circus and later - after he had fallen out with his fellow performers - she found herself literally singing for her supper on the streets. Here Edith was spotted by a club owner who put her on the road to stardom, but Edith's rocky road to the top was constantly marked by drink, drugs, insanity and death, before she finally passed away in 1963 at the age of 47.

That's a lot of incident to pack into a single film, even one which runs to an arduous 140 minutes, and Dahan has a devil of a time trying to make all the pieces fit. For reasons best known to himself, the director has decided to adopt a structure which sees the picture hopping back and forth in time, cutting between scenes of Piaf's upbringing and scenes depicting the increasingly debilitated Piaf's last years. We open with Piaf (played in adulthood by an astonishing Marion Cotillard) collapsing on a New York stage in 1959 before skipping back to the sub-Dickensian squalor of her childhood years, and this exasperating back-and-forth continues right throughout
La Vie En rose, robbing the picture of coherence and dramatic momentum.

It also makes the film extraordinarily difficult to follow in places, dropping characters after they have barely been introduced to us and giving some seemingly important events only the most fleeting of examinations before jumping off in another direction. For example, the murder of Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu), of which Piaf was briefly suspected, comes out of nowhere and is just as rapidly dropped; Edith's childhood friend Mômone (Sylvie Testud) leaves her after an argument and is later seen back in Edith's circle incongruously dressed as a man; and one scene halfway through the movie opens with Edith married to a man we have not seen before, and whom we barely meet before he leaves the story. This fragmentation of events in Piaf's life reaches its nadir in the final ten minutes, when the fact that she had a child who died of meningitis is suddenly shoehorned into the climax in the most ill-timed and inappropriate way.

Why did Dahan decide to slice up Piaf's story in this way? One would have thought the facts of the singer's life would carry enough power to drive the movie without this cinematic dressing, and the choppy nature of things only dilutes its edges. It would have been interesting as well to see the evolution of Marion Cotillard's performance over the course of the picture - from gawky teenager to decrepit has-been - instead of just repeatedly skipping from one incarnation to another, but whatever way you look at it there's no denying the brilliance of the actress' work here. The biopic is the acting community's genre of choice, offering roles which are generally catnip to the awards voters, and sometimes we can be guilty of overpraising a piece of acting just because it's an accurate impersonation of the subject. Cotillard will no doubt receive plenty of recognition at the Oscars and elsewhere for this turn - but she deserves every ounce of praise for a staggering piece of acting.

This pretty, 31 year-old French actress is magnificent here both as the energetic young Edith and the frail woman who looked like she was 80 years old when she was really in her 40's. She has the bug-eyed expression, the slightly buck-toothed grin and the angular, hunched gait; and even though she's much taller than the famously tiny Piaf, Cotillard's complete dedication to the role makes us believe in the illusion. She doesn't do her own singing - who could match the real thing? - but she lip-syncs expertly to the soundtrack and the effect is flawless. This is really a one-woman show, and whatever emotion the film possesses is derived directly from the leading lady's
tour de force performance.

La Vie en rose doesn't do its main star any favours though, and the flashy editing style and jumbled chronology makes the film feel like hard work, when it should be sucking us into the emotionally wrought story. Individual moments manage to spark across the picture - the sequence in which Piaf learns to use her hands as a means of expression; her romance with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins); her delight at hearing je ne regrette rien for the first time ("It's me! It's my life!") - but these moments never really connect with one another in this disjointed affair. The one time Dahan's directorial flair pays dividends is when he shows us Piaf's reaction to the news that Cerdan has been killed in a plane crash. The distraught singer wails and thrashes around her hotel room, staggering down a corridor and onto a stage to sing in front of a packed audience, all in a single take. In one dazzling cinematic coup Dahan makes the point about Piaf's personal pain feeding her art, but this is a rare occasion in which the filmmaking style works for the film, offering us some insight instead of distracting us from the main focus.

Dahan does stage a nice climax, with a performance of
je ne regrette rien being cut between Piaf on her deathbed and memories of her past, and it is undeniably affecting; but are we being moved by the film or the music? Olivier Dahan's film is classy and impressive, but it's also a shallow and crazily unfocused piece of work which feels like a missed opportunity; and La Vie en rose is never better than when it stops playing tricks with time and simply allows us to watch the uncanny Cotillard miming to that unique voice. It's a voice which has a purity and emotional directness that is missing from this muddled biopic, and it's a voice which takes us places that this film never looks like reaching.