If someone were to make a list of iconic singers from around the world, I can guarantee that Édith Piaf would be close to the top. Piaf’s unique voice and graceful stage presence made her an international success until her untimely death at the age of just 47. Even today, her music can be found in movies, television, and commercials which shows that even though she’s no longer with us, her musical legacy is still strong. Something that reinforced this was the 2007 film by Olivier Dahan, La Vie en Rose. This film tells the life story of Édith Piaf, which includes incredible joy and overwhelming tragedy. It’s definitely a story that had to be told.
The film begins with a sick looking Édith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) taking the stage for a concert, and quickly fainting during a song in front of a large audience. The film then cuts back to 1918 when Piaf was just a young child who is left by her parents to live with her grandmother in a brothel in Normandy. As the years go on, Piaf makes a meager living singing on the street, but is soon found by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and invited to sing at his club where she quickly becomes something of a local celebrity. As time goes on, her fame increases and travels around the world, including New York City, where tragedy hits hard when she loses the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), in a plane crash. Finally, back in France towards the end of her life, it’s clear that Piaf’s abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol have taken a huge toll on her health, and the devastating realization that soon she will no longer be able to sing anymore.
This is a hard movie to summarize because it tells so much of a person’s life. This is a pretty long movie, clocking in with a run time of almost two and a half hours, but even then I feel like there may have been more to be told. That works to the film’s credit since I was intrigued by the subject and the handling of Piaf by making the icon into exactly what she was: a human being. While I love the way Piaf is depicted in this movie, I wasn’t really a huge fan of how the story was told. The film starts towards the end and then jumps back to the beginning for a while, and naturally progresses from there. That’s all fine, but as the movie goes on it jumps back and forth and then introduces an even later timeline, and then starts jumping around even more rapidly. Towards the end of the movie, I jumped around so much that I was sometimes confused with where and when I was in the story. I understand that this was a way for the film makers to get in as much of the story as they could, and I’m ok with a cut up timeline, but this was just way overdone.
It’s impossible to talk about La Vie en Rose and not talk about Marion Cotillard. This is, in my opinion, one of the greatest screen performances of all time. When you’re watching the movie and getting more engaged in the story, you forget that you’re watching Cotillard playing Édith Piaf and are actually watching Piaf herself. I know that’s how I felt. It’s a complete transformation from one person into another, and it’s truly incredible. Not only does she nail Piaf’s voice (although the singing was dubbed), but also the way she stood, small mannerisms that she had, and even small changes to her face that made all the difference. With a movie like this where the character was a real person whose life was filled with such success and tragedy, it’s important to believe what’s happening. Cotillard’s performances made this a very easy film to believe and get lost in. She is a marvel to watch, and earned the Academy Award for her performance, which is one of the few times someone has won this award for an entire foreign language role.
La Vie en Rose also is just a beautiful looking movie, even in the beginning when a young Piaf is living a life on the streets in Belleville to the more upscale life that she led in New York. The set design is all fantastic and the costumes work great with the different decades that Piaf lived through. There’s just so much wonderful stuff to look at, and I have to give a lot of credit to Olivier Dahan and his direction for adding something more to the design. At first, I thought the directing was nothing special, but that’s not the case. It’s understated and controlled and never takes the style too far. One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens during a devastating moment in Piaf’s life, and instead of cutting, the scene follows Piaf through her entire apartment and catches the entire range of emotion in her performance and the atmosphere surrounding the incident.
La Vie en Rose is not without it’s faults, but it’s a movie that truly captures the tumultuous life of an icon of music. This is a frustrating movie to sit through, at times, because how the story keeps jumping from the past to the present to the future to the past then who knows where. If that was just toned down a bit, the movie would have been improved. Still, Cotillard’s performance, the production design, and Dahan’s skilled directing make this an above average biopic.
Final Grade: B+