Friday, February 01, 2008

La Vie en Rose

La Vie en Rose (2007) totally ignores the German occupation of France and the accusations that Edith Piaf somehow collaborated with the Nazis. There are different explanations for her behavior during these years, and they may or may not be persuasive, but the film makes no attempt to reach a judgment and simply ignores the period entirely.

La Vie en Rose is no white wash of its subject, however. It is critical in many ways of Piaf's lifestyle, personality, and personal relationships. She could be difficult and unpleasant, an egotistical, misbehaving diva, and the film shows a real discrepancy between the sometimes sordid details of her life and the beautiful voice when she begins to sing.

The film tells the story of Piaf's life by switching back and forth between the latter days of her life, as she collapses on stage, later as she seems to wither away in a nursing facility, and her early days, beginning in early childhood and gradually moving forward through her life and career. The back and forth narrative structure can be jarring, discordant, and it prevents too much emotional involvement by the viewer—that is, as soon as we may be swept away by a scene of Piaf's singing, we are moved to a wholly different scene in which an ill and much older Piaf sits suffering in a wheelchair.

Piaf's life was one of suffering, heartbreak, and tragedy, punctuated with numerous moments of triumph. The film chronicles myriad scenes of misery: abandoned first by her drunken mother and then her father, left to be raised by prostitutes, then taken away to live and work on the streets with her father, working as a street singer and maybe a prostitute during her late teenage years, the mother of a child who dies of meningitis at two, befriended by a gangster and accused of corruption after he is gunned down, permanently injured in a car wreck and suffering from pain for the rest of her life (she limps, walks with a decided stoop, is addicted to alcohol and painkillers as a partial result), falls in love with a prizefighter who dies in a plane crash, a long and painful decline, dying at the age of 47. In ways the film seems more concerned with Piaf's miserable existence than with her seemingly miraculous talent as a singer.

It's clear that Piaf lived a difficult life. What isn't so clear in this film is the relationship of that life to her singing. There's a kind of disjuncture between the two that the film never manages to bridge. There's also a mystery in how the French idolized Piaf as a distinctly nationalistic phenomenon. Not that she didn't merit it, not that it wasn't genuine, just that the film never quite fully explains it. Obviously the stories about Piaf's hard early days--growing up on the streets, abandoned by her parents, discovered singing on a street curb--play into the legend on which that idolatry grew.

Marion Cotillard is excellent as Piaf. She seems to inhabit the role fully—one of those rare instances in film when the actor seems to merge with the character portrayed, when you forget that you're watching someone act and are convinced that you're watching the historical person. The question of whether Cotillard's portrayal of Piaf is historically accurate seems immaterial. Her acting in the film is quite an achievement.

Piaf was probably easier to like on stage, especially when she was singing, than as a person, a human being. The film certainly portrays her this way. And whatever failures La Vie en Rose may be blamed for in its ignoring of the German occupation and its inability to make the life and the art connect, it's a fine film that brings deserved attention to one of the great popular culture figures of the twentieth century.

No comments: