When I first ordered this film from NetFlix, I got the beginning French article wrong and received instead Ma Vie En Rose, the coming-of-age story about a young boy who desperately wants to dress as a girl. I was disappointed that I hadn’t received the biopic about Edith Piaf I’d expected, but I’d wanted to see the other film and watched it anyway. Although I thought it beautiful and moving, I’m still not sure whether it’s trans- and homophobic, or if it’s a sensitive discussion of a boy’s gender ambivalence/ambiguity.
La Vie En Rose, on the other hand, I found unambiguously wonderful. Writer-director Olivier Dahan’s film eschews chronology, cutting backwards and forwards in Piaf’s tragic life, from her collapse onstage at one of her final performances and onward to her death, back to her childhood as the abandoned daughter of an alcoholic street singer and a circus contortionist. She’s taken in early on by a warm-hearted prostitute named Tatine who works under the stern hand of her madam, who happens to be Piaf’s paternal grandmother. Scenes of the sickly young Edith navigating the purgatory of a 1930s Paris bordello capture the inchoate confusion of the perversions and lusts that course through the house’s warren-like rooms and winding hallways.
Here and throughout the film, Dahan shoots from Piaf’s perspective. These early brothel scenes deliver incoherent images of men and women in various states of undress and unusual sexual postures that are difficult to piece together, as they would be for an eight-year-old child who knows not what she sees. Seen through Edith’s eyes, the brothel seems a happy place; Tatine and another prostitute clearly love and care for the girl in ways her parents could never manage. They entertain her during her bath, and take her for walks, swinging her by the arms between them.
Poor health consigns young Edith to months in bed; at one point, she’s temporarily blinded by an eye inflammation. Her dependency on caretakers and medications begins early and haunts her life, eventually contributing to her premature death in her mid-40s. Her physical needs infect her emotional constitution, turning her quickly from a strong, devil-may-care young woman with a flippant attitude to her own poverty, to the cantankerous, querulous diva who adores and despises those who eventually control her career.
La Vie en Rose is an often moving biopic whose form and content meld to create its portrait of the tragic artist. The camera dedicates itself to Piaf’s perspective; as it moves through her life, hand-held shots with very few edits move with her from room to room, seeing through her eyes the walls literally closing in around her, feeling along with her confusion, determination, and despair. The camera captures physically, as well as metaphorically, how time and space collapse around Piaf.
Toward the end, the film detours into unnecessary melodrama, given Piaf’s already heightened life story. The story reveals that she had a child, a daughter who died young from meningitis. It’s not entirely clear why Dahan’s script withholds this information until the finale, which overburdens the secret with importance it doesn’t really earn. Are we supposed to think that Edith’s often cruel emotional connections to people resulted from the loss of her only child? Does the writer-director presume this explains more of her complicated personality than scenes of her own degrading childhood?
In fact, the film does its best work illuminating the formative impact of poverty on Piaf’s life. When her stardom brings her wealth, she believes in it no more than she did her own mother’s fealty. The diva’s bitterness is so thoroughly internalized, no fortune could compensate for those early deprivations. She remains, throughout her life, the street singer, hat in hand, reaching out to audiences who marveled at her voice to feed her emotionally and physically.
Marion Cotillard’s performance as Piaf richly deserved the Oscar she received for Best Actress this year. Her performance of the doomed diva is intensely physical; it seems to emanate from her round, kohl-drawn eyes as well as her pleading, sweeping hands. Cotillard lip-synced Piaf’s singing, but her physical mannerisms and her impersonation of Piaf’s vocal virtuosity is so persuasive it’s difficult to tell that the voice emanating from those perfectly rounded, quivering lips isn’t hers.
Cotillard embodies Piaf’s songs completely, reveling in the chanteuse’s vocal idiosyncrasies and her signature gestures, using her elegant, bird-like hands to enhance her music’s emotional appeal. The film underlines that “piaf” means “little sparrow” in French, a name bestowed on Edith by her first benefactor (played benevolently by Gerard Depardieu).
Despite her precarious health, Piaf commands a stage. The contrast the film captures between her increasingly vulnerable, frail body and her powerful, charismatic stage presence is utterly compelling, even frightening. Later scenes, in which her talent overwhelms the capacities of her small, brittle frame, are terrifying, brutal in how they depict Piaf’s will to sing and the way in which her talent ultimately seems to kill her from within. Her body, it seems, couldn’t withstand the power of her voice.
Cotillard never loses sight of Piaf’s intense vulnerability and her contradictory strength (opposing characteristics that Joe Roach, in his wonderful book, It, says are what mark people who have “it,” that most elusive, difficult-to-describe star quality). She persuasively ages, playing Piaf from her teen-aged years to the end of her life with nuanced, convincing changes of tone, character, and emotional quality. The sole DVD extra demonstrates the make-up artist’s achievement with the film, as the meticulously constructed age effects and wigs allowed Dahan to film Cotillard in extreme close-up without losing believability.
The crippling arthritis that contributed to Piaf’s early death made the singer look twice her age. Convalescent scenes after her breakdown toward the end of her career show her bent as if with osteoporosis. In her illness, she wears her once-dark, lush hair in a badly dyed haze of carrot-colored fuzz around her head, and her face is lined and crumpled. Yet despite her body’s deterioration, Piaf continues to command her spirit, her voice, and her companions. Only when she realizes that she’ll never sing again does Piaf acquiesce to death.
Piaf’s original talent was raw and rather glib, as she stood on street corners nearly daring people to stop to listen and appreciate her voice. As various male coaches help her construct the more calculating emotive image for which she became known, the performativity laced through her performances becomes stunningly clear. Piaf performed herself, even while she truly seemed to love and feed off of her fan’s adoration for the image she created and held at such a short distance from herself. She found kinship in performance, connecting to audiences who were always anonymous and fleeting, but huge sustaining presences in her life.
The Feminist Spectator