Monday, March 10, 2008

La Vie En Rose (2007)

La Vie En Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007)
French Title: La Môme

La Vie En Rose, Olivier Dahan's bloated biopic about French singer Edith Piaf, is enjoyable precisely for one reason, Marion Cotillard's wonderful performance as the iconic popular vocalist. It's already a widely known fact that Cotillard shaved back her hairline, completely shaved her eyebrows to accommodate ones that are penciled in, and endured five hours of make-up to look like Piaf from her early twenties up to her demise at the age of 48. It's a performance that relies on maturity since the temptation of basking on the stylized make-up and larger-than-life personality of the celebrity is immense. Cotillard gives a lovely performance, avoiding the easy allure of impersonation and instead gives her version of Piaf a delightful depth and humanity, a semblance of humanity amid the heavy make-up, the stylized gestures, and the less-than-enthralling filmmaking.

As with most biopics, La Vie En Rose makes the mistake of condensing the life of a person in a span of two hours or a little bit more. The results are usually redundant and utterly sentimental episodic messes like Taylor Hackford's Ray (2004) or James Mangold's Walk the Line (2005). Other biopics who have fallen in the same trap rise above the rest through sheer inspired workmanship. Such is the case of The Aviator (2004), Martin Scorsese's exhilarating although rather conventional (in the typical Hollywood Oscar-whoring epic scale) take on the life of Howard Hughes. In a way, Piaf's life is perfect for the traditional kind of biopic. She has achieved national and international success to evoke a semblance of veneration or at least interest from the moviegoing public. Her public life is near-legendary, especially with her bouts with alcoholism, her several doomed loves, and her early death. Her private life, which includes her troubled childhood and her obscure work during World War II among many others, is both intriguing and mysterious.

Thus, La Vie En Rose is mostly composed of probably fictionalized moments of Piaf's life. The film strings these moments together, not through the traditional straightforward narrative construct, but through frequent mind-boggling chronological jumps, facilitated by indications of time and place and usually accompanied by Piaf's own songs. There seems to be a cohering element in Dahan's narrative conceit, but even that fails to register. It feels like Dahan contemplates on telling Piaf's life, not from childhood to death, but from a standpoint of themes that differentiate Piaf from other singers. The film is told through these aspects --- Piaf's devotion to St. Therese, her struggle to be within the concept of an artist, love, and lastly mortality. Unfortunately, it's just very difficult to the confounding narrative's denseness. It just doesn't work.

Dahan starts out with Piaf collapsing during a concert while we overhear her praying to St. Therese to delay her death. The film flashbacks to her childhood, where she succumbs to blindness but is miraculously cured after a pilgrimage to her saint's tomb. In one scene, most probably doctored to fit cinematic standards, the saint appears from the embers of a circus-hired fire eater's flames, assuring young Piaf of guidance and protection. The film overindulges in romanticizing Piaf, from her childhood being cared for by prostitutes with hearts of gold, her above mentioned devotion to St. Therese, her paramount alcoholism, even her swooning romance with French boxing champion.

Inevitably, more interesting points are overshadowed. Her supposed questionable role in World War II, or her relationship with her first husband are left out, brandishing a celebrity that seems self-contained in her own world. Piaf then becomes ultimately less human than Dahan wishes to present her, inevitably turning her into a mere reactive subject of the circumstances that the director plagued her story with instead of a human being with complex morality and psychology. Dahan merely reads to us his version of her story instead of creating a cinematic persona out of Piaf, resulting into, despite his narrative risks, an uncompelling biopic.

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