Paris’s fractured songbird
La Vie en rose ( M) National release
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
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