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  La Vie en Rose (La Môme)
Olivier Dahan

Laure Thomas
posted 19 June 2007

Trying to fit Piaf's life into a single film would be like trying to fit Paris into a bottle, as they say in France. Rather than seeking to cover the legendary French singer Edith Piaf's life from start to finish, Olivier Dahan, who wrote and directed La Vie en Rose, attempted, rather successfully, to convey Piaf's dramatic artistic force by skipping back and forth between events in her childhood and early years, her professional career and her last years.

Born during World War One in Belleville, a slummy suburb of Paris (rendered famous in the adorable animation Les Triplettes de Belleville), Piaf was largely abandoned by her parents in the first ten years of her life: her father is off at the front and her mother leaves her with her own crazy and alcoholic mother. When Edith’s father returns at the end of the war and finds her at the mercy of this old witch, he takes her to his own mother. As a contortionist in a travelling circus, he cannot possibly look after such a young child. Although, or perhaps because, his mother is sane and sober, as the Madame of a brothel, she is not immediately amenable to having the small girl around. Edith stays however and at once becomes the 'petite cherie' of girls of the house. They say you are who you are by age seven, and these first few scenes, interrupted by ones of Piaf's early singing, aim to convey the sheer trauma that was Piaf's childhood, while also conveying its moments of unadulterated, exuberant joy. This is a childhood filled with fun and ill health, sin and faith, horror and beauty, loss and love.

Loss is the leitmotif of Piaf's life: her parents, her child, her mentor, her great love... She was a great artist with a mesmerising voice, a voice that has been described as ‘ripping your heart out so thoroughly you can hold it in your hands’. Yet, as much as she worked at her craft and perfected her talent, the source of this talent is her ability to pour such emotion into her songs. She sang because she so badly needed an outlet and a crowd. Her intensity came from a life of extremes, where she responded to recurrent tragedies by losing herself in the pleasures she found in singing, but also men, alcohol and drugs.

While the film manages to convey this admirably, this is largely down to Marion Cotillard as Piaf. Her transformation is astounding. Her interpretation of Piaf makes you feel you've met the singer personally by the time you leave the cinema. It isn't simply the admirable make-up job of Didier Lavergne, or Cotillard's mimetism of Piaf's every tic and attitude, but her voice. Although the main singing performances are dubbed, the actor manages to find Piaf's voice and recreate it for her dialogues. The accent, the intonation, Piaf's gutsiness and fiery character all come through. Cotillard says that although this role scared her more than any other, for the first time in her acting career, even when she was a ‘nervous wreck’, she never once considered the possibility of quitting. It is clear watching her in the part that she adopted Piaf, the good and the bad, and to give up would not have been so much letting the director down as the singer herself, whose presence Cotillard says she felt throughout the filming.

And it must have got very difficult indeed. Cotillard plays Edith from early adulthood until her death at only 47, but by then, Piaf looked like a very sick old lady. The range of human emotions she must cover is the broadest imaginable: from unquenchable joy and love to unbearable heartbreak and grief, from the spotlight centre stage in Carnegie Hall to a deathbed in a dark room where the curtains have been drawn for the last time.

Cotillard is helped in this by the crème de la crème of French actors: Gerard Depardieu as the agent who discovers Piaf and gives her that name, Catherine Allegret - the stepdaughter of one of Piaf's lovers, Yves Montand, who is left out of the film - as the Madame grandmother with a well hidden soft spot, Emmanuelle Seigner, hooker with the heart of gold who looks after little Edith as though she were her own, all bring their own stature to the film. Manon Chevallier and Pauline Burlet who play Edith aged 5 and 10 are also incredible.

Although the chronological jumps backwards and forwards are unnerving at first and seem to create more confusion about this legend of a woman, the uneasiness passes as more pieces of the puzzle come together. Still, it is one of the few films where you walk out wishing it had been longer and more aspects of Piaf's life had been considered. There is no reference to the Second World War, despite a good number of the scenes taking place during it or immediately in its wake. Although this may have been a deliberate effort not to overcomplicate the film, one can't help the sensation that perhaps too much of it ended up on the film editor's floor.

Nonetheless, the end of the film will not come too soon for many. The intensity of Piaf in a bottle will have had the tears flowing for most.

 

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