If you’re a fan of the famous French singer Edith Piaf, you will probably love the new French film “La Vie en Rose,” which purports to tell the story of her life. Chances are you already know about her scandals, her illness, her tragedies, her triumphs. More than likely, if you’re a big fan, you know the English translation to the lyrics of all her famous songs. And because none of that needs to be explained to you, you will probably find “La Vie en Rose” to be a wonderful tribute to one of your favorite singers. By all means, go and enjoy.
However, if like most Americans you only have a cursory knowledge of Piaf and encountered her music only in passing, you will probably be perplexed by the disjointed film. You’ll walk away after the movie feeling somewhat entertained, but with not much more appreciation for the remarkable singer who left such an indelible mark on 20th Century French culture.
Most biopics will tell you the story of a person’s life: they will show you how they got from here to there to there, the struggles they had, the lessons they learned along the way, and the audience will learn something valuable while they are entertained by great acting and all the other arts of feature cinema. But “La Vie en Rose” does not do this. While it does depict a number of interesting episodes in the life of Edith Piaf, they are all told out of order. The film jumps from 1959 to 1918 to 1963 to 1949 to 1955 to 1930-something to 1960 and so on and so forth. It seems almost random. And it gets extremely confusing if you are not already familiar with her life story.
And neither does it tell her story completely. Important episodes—including her work with the French resistance during World War II—are left out. And several times, issues are raised and developed but not concluded.
For example, she is accused of the murder of her manager Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and her career suffers, but the film never tells you how it was resolved. I vaguely recall hearing something about it once—maybe the charges were dropped, maybe there was a trial and she was found not guilty—but I’m not sure and the film never tells you. On another occasion, she and one of her husbands were in a serious car accident and gravely injured, but it’s confusing how well she recovered and if her husband survived or not. It’s also not clear just what was the final illness that claimed her life at such a young age (she was only 47, but she looked more like 87).
Another very annoying aspect to the film, for viewers who don’t speak French, is that the lyrics to most of her songs are not subtitled. While you can enjoy the tunes and her amazing voice, it’s frustrating not knowing what she was singing about. This is hammered home in a scene where one of her mentors tells her how important the lyrics are for interpreting a song and how she must sing them clearly so the audience can understand. It’s a cruel tease to tell the audience how vital the lyrics are and then not translate them.
This is not to say the movie is totally bad. Marion Cotillard, who plays Piaf, does an amazing job of bringing the singer to life. And although they seem unrelated, there are a number of episodes that are quite interesting and make for a number of great scenes. Particularly a series of scenes in which she has an ongoing extramarital affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins); when she is raised by prostitutes in a brothel; when she goes blind, as a child, but is seemingly cured by Saint Therese, when she works at a circus with her father, a contortionist, and then later sings “The Marseillaise” on the streets of Paris; when a soldier, during World War II, sells a song to her just before heading off to the front; an episode where she collapses on stage and then insists on going on with the performance; and a funny scene right after she arrives in New York where she has such a negative reaction to a pastrami sandwich—perhaps identical to the way some Americans may react to French food. And, of course, the music is great and Piaf has such a wonderful voice.
However, as a coherent drama, I fear the work falls apart. There is no logical progression to explain the development of the character. And the fact that the secondary characters, with the exception of Marcel Cerdan, are completely undeveloped doesn’t help at all. You can’t help but wonder who are all these various people who wander in and out of her life; they seem more like scenery than characters.
The title of the film, “La Vie en Rose,” taken from one of her most popular songs, idiomatically translates as “Life through rose-colored glasses.” If that’s the point of Edith Piaf’s life, than that means she never got to any significant reality. I’d like to hope that that’s not true, but the episodic nature of this film makes it all seem very superficial and, in the end, there doesn’t seem to be much substance there at all. Doesn’t Piaf deserve better?
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