This movie isn’t so much a story about Edith Piaf, it was hardly a movie in any conventional sense of the word. It was more of a meditation, a remembering. If you can imagine one of the greatest singers of all time on her death bed, crippled, virtually alone and suddenly remembering everything from her life, just as Charles Foster Kane’s tragic life was given to us, only it comes without an interviewer or narration and it is revealed to us in starts and fits, jumping around wildly, seeing everything without a filter, all the goods and the bads, the rights and wrongs. Like a song it is alive, it flows and tells. “La Vie en Rose” is Edith Piaf’s soul bared naked before the audience.
And it’s a soul you don’t necessarily fall in love with, but to talk further about that I feel I must talk about the shining center. It seems to be the “in thing” to say right now “Marrion Cotillard is brilliant, but the movie isn’t as good.” It’s true Marrion Cotillard is beyond brilliant as Edith Piaf, as an actor, without hesitation and every moment she bares her own soul, and makes almost every performance I can think of look pale in comparison. With a single look her doe-like eyes that peer upward, mouth curled in a meek smile, her teeth jutting out slightly, she breaks your heart. She embodies everything about Piaf, at every age…from a brash and raucous 20-year old singing in bars that can barely survive, to a boisterously obnoxious diva at the height of her career (the type of person you would notice from your own dinner table and be annoyed with), to a withering 47-year-old with liver cancer who had lost more than her fair share, all you ever see is Piaf, all you ever hear is Piaf. It is only fitting to cast someone as passionately involved in their character as Piaf was in her music. I was astonished to see a picture of Cotillard in the new issue of Fade In, she looks absolutely nothing like the character she plays. Without her performance the film itself would not thrive as it does.
But if the film were not good enough, it wouldn’t know what to do with such an amazing performance. I have a feeling that many people have a hard time “enjoying” the film. This film isn’t to be enjoyed. It doesn’t apologize for her behavior, just as she never apologized for it. It doesn’t force feed any reasons to care for her. It tells it like it is. This is what we know. She had a Mother who sang on the streets and a Father who was away at war. Little Edith was overlooked. She was left with an Aunt who took little care of her, but was fortunately saved by her Father only to be brought to a brothel to be looked after while he went back to war. Some of her first real friends were hookers. When the Father did come back, and pulled little Edith away from the hooker she had grown most attached to, the image of Charlie Chaplin reaching out to the child in “The Kid” sprung into my mind. This is the truest form of pathos and it doesn’t end. Her Father returns, takes her to the circus, quits the circus to become a street performer where little Edith has to hold the hat to accept money. One of the men in the crowd asks if the girl is a part of the act. The Father nudges her, tells her to do something. She’s hesitant at first but then for the first time, suddenly, and beautifully, we hear her sing. I was reminded of the phrase in “Ratatouille” the Brad Bird film that, “Not everyone can be an artist, but an artist can come from anywhere.” And this was just the beginning for Piaf.
The thing that struck me the most was the sincere passion she had for singing. She never sang because she wanted to, she sang because she had to, because it was a part of her being. With broken ribs she begged and pleaded to be let back on stage. This movie isn’t merely about a singer, but about an artist. One who lives and dies by her art. Just as Maggie Fitzgerald can’t go on in a broken shell with the memory of boxing in “Million Dollar Baby” so to Piaf can’t go on with life, can’t deal with the tragedies that constantly afflict her, unless she is singing. The film never comes out and says this directly to the audience as is the case in most Hollywood films (“Ray” and the Johnny Cash film went to great and silly lengths to show us the specific inspirations for some songs,) instead we’re treated to a brilliant and moving sequence when Piaf finds out what has happened to the love of her life; the camera follows her through the halls and in and out of her bedroom, in what is a 6 minute take, finally she weeps leaving her friends behind as she moves back toward her bed room, only it’s no longer a bed room. This sequence alone captures the strength of a great artist. I describe it simply so that I do no justice to it, it honestly has to be experienced to be understood. And there are many moments in the film like this…some might think too much. But the filmmakers are smart here and don’t linger long on the typical biopic pit falls (drug abuse, etc.)
In the end as Piaf’s “Rosebud” becomes more clear, I felt lucky that I had the patience with the film and the character, that at many times I did not love, to follow through, for as Piaf lays in bed on her final night, moments that were kept secret, as if Piaf, wanted to keep them to herself are finally revealed to us, and we understand everything we needed to know about her and finally love her for it. We understand why she was the way she was and why she did the things she did. These moments shift and build to an incredible finale on stage, and they know just how incredible it is, for when the image disappears, we’re left in silence for a long moment to take in and let all the puzzle pieces settle. In “La Vie en Rose”they have taken the time to create a fully developed person, with flaws and hopes and desires and tragedies and in the end whose only salvation is love and her art.