A Special Providence
Director/co-writer Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose/La Môme, starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, is good for mist in the eyes but, like most cinema chanteuse stories, pretties up the sordid. The French, too, it seems, “indulge in sickly cultural pathos,” wrote one of their scholars, “that fetishism of the cultural heritage.”
Do not take the whole for strict biography. Long at a hundred forty minutes, this life is mild in touching on growing up in paternal grandmother’s (Catherine Allégret) Normandy bordello (Manon Chevallier as Édith at five) or on the road (Pauline Burlet, at ten) with contortionist father Louis-Alphonse (Jean-Paul Rouve), the heavy drinking and morphine, the difficult personality and early deterioration.
Representation censors life, to streamline it. This particular life siphons away or sugars the unpleasantries. There were real scandals. The flings with protégés, fiancés and others, among whom scuttlebutt has Montand, Aznavour, Eddie Constantine, Paul Meurisse, of this sexually busy woman who had “to try a man out in bed to know him,” are represented by a discretely unphysical one with 1948-49 middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins). Gratuitously introduced vision-endangering childhood keratitis, the (sanitized) time in slums and streets, the glowering but harmless pimp, are more or less included. Not broached are several serious automobile crashes, bouts of depression, the birth and death of her baby Marcelle, the cancer that killed her rather than the implied romantic hard living, or the final poverty and debt for she who had been among the most highly paid of entertainers.
Such is the box-office nature of the Hollywood-Paris-Wherever “tragic, romantic blockbuster,” and, while no exception, Dahan’s is in fact good for its breed. Chronological but sprinkled with out-of-sequence inserts, theoretically necessitating the popular written locale-and-time markers that Shakespeare worked into dialogue, the incidents are tied together, of course, by the heroine. There are in addition two dubious unifying devices, the first of them a late coming father-figure vision and search, ostensibly for unsmiling soldier Louis, who trundled the young child off to his mother during Great War leave when birth mother Annetta (Clotilde Courau) took off, then picked her up for a circus and soon itinerant street-act life. Though the Church refused mass at her national frenzy funeral, considerable play is given to her insistence on a neck crucifix and veneration of Saint Theresa, who “cured” her eyes at the prayers of redheaded golden-hearted putain Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner).
The girl’s “début” effective -- of course, it is “The Marseilles” -- in wringing centimes from a village audience, she winds up at twenty singing for drink and food money in the capital’s rough Belleville. Standing beside lifelong friend and unofficial half-sister Simone “Momone” Berteaut (Sylvie Testud), she is discovered by Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu), who invents the enduring stage name, orchestrates the shy-faced gamine’s instant acclaim at his Gerny’s cabaret and leaves her involved with the police when he is killed by gangsters. Despite all, she is skillfully managed by Louis Barrier (Pascal Greggory), coached in voice and mannerisms by “Papa” Leplée’s friend Raymond Asso (Marc Barbé), becomes the sensation of the smart set, the friend of Cocteau and Dietrich and one of the world’s best-selling songwriters and recording artists.
Until Virgil Thompson’s glowing review, Piaf is initially less than embraced this side of the Atlantic, where “I don’t connect to them.” It is in New York, however, that she is overwhelmed by married-with-children Moroccan pig farmer and world champion-to-be Cerdan. To some of her entourage’s displeasure, the fighter becomes her be-all and end-all -- she later married twice -- so his death is devastating and marks the beginning of her slide into dependency and physical, perhaps in part psychosomatic, decline.
Minute by minute, Cotillard’s songstress is more frail and hunched (makeup by Didier Lavergne), in a familiar condensed biopic series of collapses and relapses, tantrums and triumphs. Piaf does not come across as very endearing. From the lowest of streets, she is not shown as returning to them or helping -- in fairness, few do -- and to gather from the film, her talent and celebrity are what attract others.
One might think of a Sinatra, particularly his signature, Paul Anka’s “My Way.” In an improbable setup, the day before going “to the front” (1956, so Algeria) a soldier is allowed in to play his composition for her. “I want it, everyone out!” the diva exclaims half-way into it, and, to back the idea of her toughness, “Non, je ne regrette rien” ("No regrets") stands as her film credo more than the English title “La Vie en Rose.”
(Released by Picturehouse and rated "PG-13" for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements.)