The problem with La Vie en Rose isn't that it takes liberties with the facts of Edith Piaf's life. So did she; Piaf epitomized the self-made myth, enough so that historical accuracy from her biographers has a way of becoming thematic inaccuracy. Legend keeps the so-called "little sparrow" as the tragic chanteuse whose mournful ballads of seamy street life—sung from obvious but embellished experience—turned her desperate, tremulous rasp into the sound of Paris.
Whatever the legend, the real life brought rude awakenings and many abandonments. Her mother, a street-singing hooker, dumped her on her father, a circus contortionist, who in turn dumped her on her grandmother, the madam at a Lisieux bordello. Later, the important men in her life (unsurprisingly, there were many of less importance) tended suddenly to die. Once you know all of this about her, you can't not hear it in her voice. Piaf herself expired at 47 in 1963, and has lived ever since. Allegorically, she's a biopic protagonist for the ages, or at least for next year's awards season.
So maybe the problem with La Vie en Rose is its reverence of allegory. Director Olivier Dahan, with co-writer Isabelle Sobelman, stirs up a palpable, flatly accepting astonishment at how many dramatic highlights Piaf's short life was said to contain. For fidelity's sake, apparently, his film doesn't seem to mind feeling 47 years long.
This has the unfortunate effect of dulling the music's immediacy, which isn't an easy feat and probably is the last thing a movie about Piaf needs. But OK, yes, there is also good news: She is played by Marion Cotillard, in a fierce and brilliant and finely controlled performance that you actually don't have to be French to understand.
The camera adores Cotillard's face; she's more of a stunner than Piaf herself (and Dahan can't be blamed for wanting to look at her forever), but what really matters is magnetism. The endlessly allusive, ruefully jaunty charisma radiating from her heavy-lidded eyes seems congruent with that of the sparrow's voice, which Cotillard lip-synchs easily and impressively. Better still, she makes good, strong choices to show how the life Piaf absorbed informed the artist she became. Actually, the actor is much more efficient about this than her director, who inclines to saturating every scene with decadent gestures and dwelling on the significance of heavy emotions. Such bracingly vinegary music doesn't need so honeyed an elaboration.
Unnecessarily, the movie reminds us to consider Piaf as the proto-diva, but Cotillard goes confidently deeper, also presenting her credentials as a progenitor of rock (oversharing about her own sexual development, at once accelerated and arrested), of rap (solemnizing the street life of pimps and hos), and even emo (sad and sultry, she was a ravaged waif, not even 5 feet tall, not even 100 pounds).
At her disposal is a standard array of biopic set pieces: the forcible discovery of Edith's talent by her father (Jean-Paul Rouve) on a street corner; the career launch from club owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu, perhaps inevitably); the Pygmalion dynamics of her training (eventually, when denied some indulgence or other, she snaps, "I can't? Then what's the point of being Edith Piaf?"); the breakthrough of technique, by which her hands became part of her voice; the benders of her youth, the morphine addiction later; and so on.
La Vie en Rose jumps around through Piaf's lifetime and takes too much of ours. Establishing the earned authority by which she famously sang of having no regrets requires so much preparation that it becomes—regrettably—a slog to wait for her to do it. Cinematically, Dahan seems better off within his protagonist's febrile, drug-addled death-bed recollections, where the movie simply gives itself over to a flow of imagery and music—as when St. Therese de Lisieux appears to her in a fire-breather's cloud, or when, in what serves as the film's climax, her assimilation of some especially tragic news becomes a dream and then a performance. This latter scene is so elegantly staged that it could stand alone as a short film and still feel like the definitive Piaf movie.
But maybe a movie can't even get at what Piaf really means to us. Maybe cinema's too barefaced and literal for that task. Even, especially now, only her music seems adequately descriptive, the perfect ephemeral braid of fact and legend.
This story originally ran in the Sacramento News & Review.