Paris’s frac­tured song­bird

La Vie en rose ( M) Na­tional re­lease

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

THIS bi­o­graph­i­cal pic­ture, be­gins in Oc­to­ber 1959. Edith Piaf, the Lit­tle Spar­row, is singing at a con­cert in New York, her plucky lit­tle frame barely tall enough to reach the mi­cro­phone. Sud­denly she slumps to the floor. The au­di­ence gasps in con­ster­na­tion. An am­bu­lance crew fights its way into the theatre through back streets and cor­ri­dors.

‘‘ Hurry,’’ says one, ‘‘ she col­lapsed 10 min­utes ago.’’ But no, she hasn’t! Piaf is still singing away lustily on stage in that brassy, in­domitable way of hers. Has she re­cov­ered? Is this an­other con­cert? Is this a flash­back?

Olivier Da­han’s rich, steamy biopic is full of th­ese abrupt time shifts, flash­ing back and forth be­tween past and present. And not all the changes are easy to fol­low. Later in the film Piaf col­lapses again on stage, and I won­dered if this was the same con­cert we had seen ear­lier. Then sud­denly we’re back in Belleville, the im­mi­grant quar­ter in the Paris slums where Piaf grew up, and for­ward again to 1947. Is this the same girl she was friends with all those years ago? And, hang on, is she mar­ried? Where did this hus­band spring from?

Ac­tu­ally, Piaf mar­ried twice, and the hus­band we see ( briefly) must be her first one, singer Jac­ques Pills, whom she mar­ried in 1952 and di­vorced four years later. Yes, this is 1955, so it must be Pills. I don’t think we get to see her sec­ond hus­band, whom she mar­ried a year be­fore her death in 1963.

All right, I’m ex­ag­ger­at­ing, and once we get used to Da­han’s leapfrog­ging ex­po­si­tion, La Vie en rose proves to be more than am­ply sat­is­fy­ing. Se­quen­tial nar­ra­tives may be out of fash­ion, but Piaf’s life was one of such ex­tra­or­di­nary poignancy, so re­plete with un­ex­pected twists and pas­sion­ate en­coun­ters, that a Hol­ly­wood screen­writer would have been hard- pressed to in­vent it, and it scarcely seems to mat­ter in what or­der the events are re­counted.

Da­han’s big prob­lem was de­cid­ing what bits to leave out. Her drug ad­dic­tion? Her il­le­git­i­mate child ( who died in in­fancy)? Which of her many au­then­ti­cated love af­fairs does the film have time for, and which can be over­looked? Yves Mon­tand gets barely a men­tion, Mau­rice Che­va­lier doesn’t make the cut. Da­han could have em­broi­dered a whole sub­plot around Piaf’s work for the French Re­sis­tance but has cho­sen not to. Even the busi­ness with gang­sters, when

rose ,

La Vie en Piaf is in­ter­ro­gated by French po­lice in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mur­der of her friend and men­tor Louis Le­plee ( Ger­ard Depar­dieu), is dis­missed in a sketchy scene or two.

But in any mu­si­cal biopic it’s the mu­sic that mat­ters, and Da­han’s film thrives on the big songs. Mar­ion Cotil­lard, who plays the ma­ture Piaf, gives a per­for­mance of such pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity that the rest of the cast are in dan­ger of look­ing pal­lid and slug­gish.

That pinched and pout­ing face, the bulging eyes, the ha­bit­ual bossi­ness, the peremp­tory can­dour, the hunched and dart­ing walk: all seem star­tlingly con­vinc­ing, even to those with no mem­o­ries of the wo­man her­self.

No ac­tor would have been rash enough to at­tempt an im­i­ta­tion of Piaf’s singing. Her vo­cal tone, with its plan­gent stri­dency, each word de­liv­ered as if with a per­ma­nent catch in the throat, was prob­a­bly inim­itable. Cotil­lard has mimed the songs from tapes, and the ef­fect in the big num­bers — Milord , La Vie en rose and the one we have to wait more than two hours for, Non, je ne re­grette rien — is elec­tri­fy­ing.

This is one of those rags- to- riches sto­ries that hap­pens for once to be true. The scenes of Piaf’s child­hood in slums and broth­els are so dis­tress­ing that Da­han seems keen to get them over and done with: Piaf aban­doned by her cafe- singer mother, her tem­po­rary blind­ness as a child, her stay with her pa­ter­nal grand­mother who ran a brothel in Nor­mandy, her at­tach­ment to one of the brothel girls, Ti­tine ( Emmanuelle Seigner), who be­came a kind of sur­ro­gate mother un­til Piaf’s fa­ther snatched her away.

Her fa­ther was a cir­cus con­tor­tion­ist who took her on the road while he per­formed his lit­tle tricks and begged for money. There’s a touch­ing mo­ment when he calls on the 10- year- old to be given an im­promptu per­for­mance of her own and, af­ter much hes­i­ta­tion and em­bar­rass­ment, she sings La Mar­seil­laise . It was dur­ing one of her per­for­mances in the street that Le­plee spot­ted the grown- up Piaf and in­vited her to sing at his night­club.

It was the start of her sen­sa­tional ca­reer, dur­ing which she over­came both ex­treme ner­vous­ness and all the haz­ards of her im­pul­sive na­ture. She owed much of her suc­cess to a de­voted man­ager ( Jean- Paul Rouve), who bul­lied and ca­joled her through ex­haust­ing re­hearsals. The French crowds loved her and she was a huge suc­cess in the US.

Da­han’s film could hardly be called con­ven­tional, but when Piaf’s ca­reer is tak­ing off he throws in a play­ful re­minder of the old- style Hol­ly­wood biopic with a mon­tage of spin­ning news­pa­per head­lines, song sheets and mag­a­zine cov­ers: ev­ery­thing but close- ups of train wheels rush­ing past the cam­era.

For a mo­ment La Vie en rose looks like The Glenn Miller Story , un­til we are brought back to some­thing like re­al­ity with the ap­pear­ance of a fa­mous ad­mirer in a New York restau­rant.

‘‘ I’m Mar­lene,’’ breathes this shim­mer­ing blonde ap­pari­tion, ‘‘ and your voice is the soul of Paris.’’ Mar­lene’s com­pa­tri­ots, as we know, oc­cu­pied the soul of Paris in 1940, so we can take her judg­ment to sum up the gen­eral opin­ion.

The film may be mud­dled and over­wrought but it’s full of lovely mo­ments. And when­ever it seems an emo­tional cli­max has been reached, Da­han can al­ways pull out an­other wrench­ing in­ci­dent: Piaf’s drug ad­dic­tion or the ap­pear­ance of a young sol­dier in uni­form who has writ­ten one of her most fa­mous songs. In a film that seems oddly lack­ing in in­ti­mate en­coun­ters, Jean- Pierre Martins makes a wel­come ap­pear­ance as the box­ing cham­pion Mar­cel Cer­dan, who was the great love of Piaf’s life ( or at any rate one of them).

And al­ways there’s a song to match the mood of the mo­ment. ‘‘ We will live on eter­nally,’’ she sings af­ter one un­ex­pected loss. Yes, but not un­til af­ter she has died. Or did she die in that first scene? Or is this still 1947? Piaf spends a lot of time dy­ing in La Vie en rose , and au­di­ences will spend a lot of time won­der­ing what’s go­ing on. But it’s well worth the ef­fort.

True rags- to- riches story: Sylvie Tes­tud as Momone, Mar­ion Cotil­lard as Piaf and Agathe Bodin as Suzanne in La Vie en rose

Pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity: Cotil­lard plays the song­bird in a biopic that thrives on the big songs

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