Some would argue that in order to be a great artist, one would have to suffer great tragedies throughout life. In the case of France's Edith Piaf -- a legendary singer and performer loved by all, feared by most and hated by no one -- her constant suffering replaced passion for the craft, and with the new biopic La Vie en rose (or La Môme), we feel bad ... but it's really the only thing we feel. The opening night film at the 57th Annual Berlin Film Festival includes all the tasty little ingredients one has come to expect from a biopic about a singer/songwriter and performer and musician, including the unbearable-to-watch upbringing in which Edith is forced by her mother to live on the streets, sick and on the verge of dying.
Eventually she is rescued by her strict, inconsiderate father, only to be tossed into the hands of her frigid grandmother (the madam of a whore house) as if she were a stray animal in desperate need of a roof over her head. Then we get the moment in which our main character (in this case, Edith) learns she has a talent for singing and, if properly utilized, could garner her a nice chunk of change. We also get the rise to fame -- the cheers, the front page headlines, the obligatory montage -- the whole wing, bam boom. Somewhere in between, a little love affair is thrown in, with a touch of betrayal, then everything is capped off with a pinch of cancer and the unfortunate steady decline of a star.
To put it bluntly, the movie is sad -- and not in the way it handles the life and death of Edith Piaf -- but in the realization that, for a little over two hours, we are here to watch a story about several layers of addiction. A woman addicted to herself, her drugs, her alcohol, her music and her lover. It's a story we've seen countless times before, but, in this case, one that's at least worth a look ... if only for the superb performance given by Marion Cotillard (A Good Year), as Edith Piaf. Talk about channeling the character -- the real-life woman -- in all of her defiant glory. Cotillard is breathtaking in practically every scene she appears. From her facial expressions -- right down to the way in which she moves her hands, hunches her shoulders and barks out a command in a semi-authoritative voice (the only kind she knows) -- it's simply a delight to watch, and breath in, as I prepare to watch over 20 films over the course of the next two weeks.
Aside from the aforementioned performance from Cotillard, there is also exceptional production design (Olivier Raoux re-creating France and New York circa 1919-1963) and makeup (the way in which they age Cotillard almost made it seem as if we were watching a few different actresses playing the same part). Director Olivier Dahan definitely gets the story and delivers it with honesty and passion (enough passion to make the several French women around me weep during the film's final scenes), but the timeline is rather dizzying.
Dahan chooses to jump back and forth between Piaf's last days as a very sick woman hanging onto the belief that she will still perform and Piaf's early days as an abused girl no one had the time of day for unless she could somehow provide them with a few bucks. Early on, this back-and-forth technique isn't too bothersome, but as the film progresses, the timeline jumps all over the place -- Piaf at 30 to Piaf at 20 to Piaf at 40 --to a point where we never get settled, never get to live inside a moment long enough for it to resonate and stick like snow to the pavement.
For those that grew up listening to Piaf magically transform poetic lyrics written for her into unforgettable pieces of history, La Vie en rose will most likely grab hold of your heart -- the part that felt for her, longed for her, believed in her -- and not let go until the final moments. And if you're not terribly familiar with the career of Edith Piaf, then do some research, because Marion Cotillard's performance is one that should not be missed ... and if she doesn't win some sort of best actress award at the festival, it would be a real shame.