Wednesday, August 10, 2011

La Vie En Rose

I haven't seen all that many French films, but the ones I have seen have tended to be a little odd.  That's not a bad thing, by any means, but it is a trend that I have noticed.  I sat down to watch La Vie En Rose (or La Môme, as it was known in France) with slightly different expectations.  First of all, this is a biopic of famous French singer Edith Piaf.  Biopics tend to be pretty straightforward, which is a blessing and a curse; they tell the tale of someone's life, yes, but they rarely have a compelling dramatic arc.  Second, Marion Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar for this role, which is a rare feat for an actor in a foreign language film.  Finally, I knew that one of Edith Piaf's songs was used in Inception.  That really has nothing to do with this movie, except I was hoping to identify the song when it inevitably appeared in this film (I missed it).  Oscar-winning biopics usually aren't too weird, but this one...this one is very French.

There's not much use in describing the plot of this film.  It covers Edith's life, from a small child until her death at age 47.  This is not a chronological narrative, though.  The screenplay bounces back and forth, from Edith as a sickly child being raised by prostitutes, to a bona fide success, back to her days as a singing street urchin, over to her final days, and then back to her as a struggling artist. 
"B-A-D-U-P-B-R-I-N-G-I-N-G!  That's right!"
Thanks to the unusual story editing, the audience gets quick glimpses of Edith at key moments in her life before backtracking to explain what led up to that moment and why it is important.  It's an interesting story format, although it seemed a little confusing at times.  If you don't sweat the small stuff (like dates or hard facts), this shouldn't bother you.  Do you need to have knowledge of Piaf's life to appreciate this movie?  It certainly helps, but I understand why a French film wouldn't overstate obvious factual details in a film about a French icon. Piaf's life was certainly unusual, but it's not particularly cinematic.  She spent the last fifth of her life withering away, which certainly explains why director Oliver Dahan opted to not go the traditional chronological biopic route.  Slowly dying isn't usually a recipe for cinematic gold.  Still, La Vie En Rose covers a lot of ground, showing a woman struggling with many recurring issues.
Nobody mentions the funny hair, though.

Here's what you will take away from a viewing of La Vie En Rose: Marion Cotillard is amazing as Edith Piaf.  This isn't one of those Oscar wins or nominations that makes you ask, "Really?  Gwyneth Paltrow?  I've seen more convincing cross-dressers on The Kids in the Hall."  This is an obvious must-win performance.  I am rarely bowled over by a lead actress role (I blame the lack of fun and complex roles for women), but Cotillard was simply astounding, and she does it without singing in the film (which I appreciate).  It's not just that she played her character at different ages, but each age range had a unique, yet connected, performance.  This is an acting tour de force.  See what I did there?  I used a French term to accurately describe her acting; the term translates roughly into "Tour of Force," where Force is probably a French museum.
Jokes about the French language are never funny.
I was a little creeped out by her weird eyebrows and hairline, but there is no denying Cotillard's presence or just how much she disappeared and became almost unrecognizable in the role.  The rest of the supporting cast is capable, but they pale in comparison.  Gerard Depardieu makes an appearance and is as lumpy and French as you remember.
Depardieu, disguised as a lumpy seat cushion to get closer with the ladies.
Emmanuelle Seigner did a fine job as a prostitute with a maternal instinct, but I was a little less impressed with Sylvie Testud's performance as Edith's partner in drunken mischief.  I did really enjoy Marc Barbe as Edith's forceful mentor that may have pined for his star.  In another story, I think Barbe's performance would have deserved critical attention.

As much as I appreciate Cotillard in this film, I can't say that I enjoyed watching the movie.  It was a depressing film --- which is by no means a deal-breaker for me --- that felt about an hour longer than it really was.  Part of this is due to the unconventional editing; without a dramatic arc, there is no anticipation of the ending.  I think Oliver Dahan made the best Piaf biopic he could, but some stories don't have happy endings or compelling climaxes.  There is a lot to like in the movie --- the music was great (although I would have appreciated subtitles), the makeup was an astounding achievement, and the acting was good all around --- but the story itself drained me.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe too much time was spent with Edith as a child?  I'm not sure.
Piaf's father, apparently selling his daughter's hair on the street.
I think my biggest problem is not that this movie is a downer, or that the plot jumps around, but that the screenplay doesn't live up to Cotillard's performance.  The most memorable moments in this film all rely on Cotillard's acting, not the dialogue or the plot.  She dominates this movie so completely that the scenes without her seem like a promise that is never kept; I kept thinking to myself that the scenes with child Edith would help the film come full-circle or impact the most emotional moments in the movie, but they don't.  They exist for background purposes, which is a horrible waste of dramatic potential.

Don't misunderstand me: see this movie and marvel at Marion Cotillard.  I may not have liked the film as a whole, but this is worth watching.

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