The singer Edith Piaf (1915-1963) was a unique soul, as beloved in France as much as, say, Elvis Presley was in the U.S. She had an unusual stage presence, almost mousy and withdrawn, but forceful in her voice; the effect was one of breaking out of her shell, and audiences connected with her. Her haunting voice is probably familiar to many Americans, as her songs continue to turn up as atmosphere in American movies, everything from Bull Durham (1988) to Saving Private Ryan (1998), Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers (2003) to 2005's Valiant. She appeared in person in a few movies as well, notably Jean Renoir's French Cancan (1954). My favorite Edith Piaf moment comes in Babe: Pig in the City (1998), when Babe accidentally destroys Mickey Rooney's magic show, setting the stage aflame in slow motion to the tune of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien."
Like many artists who have touched the souls of millions, Piaf probably deserves a good movie about her life, and someone worthy of playing her. The latter has stepped up, in the form of actress Marion Cotillard, in the new film La Vie en rose. Cotillard has thus far appeared without much fanfare in Tim Burton's Big Fish (2003), Luc Besson's Taxi films, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement (2004) and Ridley Scott's A Good Year (2006). But here she gives a vigorous, demanding performance that runs the gamut. She plays a teenager all the way up to Piaf's decrepit mid-40s (during which she looked like she was in her 70s). She captures Piaf's rawness and awkwardness, and refines it as time passes. She doesn't sing (Jil Aigrot provides the singing voice) but she throws her words to the rafters as if she were singing. Unless I miss my guess, the Academy will remember this performance come next February.
Sadly, La Vie en rose is a biopic. Biopics have become big business lately. Actors love them -- especially females -- because they offer a chance for rich, multi-faceted roles, possibly a chance for singing or dancing or some other kind of physical activity, as well as vocal impersonations and personal tics. Moreover, famous actors already understand the secret inner life of celebrities. The Academy voters love biopics, because they offer an easy way to fill up awards ballots. Filmmakers love them because they're easy to make and sell; a clear and adaptable formula has emerged, and the awards prestige is too tempting to pass up. Everybody wins, except the audience, which dutifully sits through ever so slightly different versions of the same movie over and over again. Casual audience members may believe they've seen the essence of a famous person's life, but it's all a bit more artificial than that.
And so Olivier Dahan's La Vie en rose -- which recently screened as the Closing Night feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival -- rolls along for two hours and twenty minutes much as De-Lovely (2004), The Aviator (2004), Ray (2004), Beyond the Sea (2004), Kinsey (2004) and Walk the Line (2005) did. We have The Moment of Discovery, the Big Break, when the public realizes just how brilliant and talented our hero is, The Rise, during which our hero adjusts to fame and fortune, The Breakdown, when things start to go badly, and perhaps the Addiction and/or Recovery sequences, topped off with the Big Finale, or the crowning achievement in the hero's career. More often than not, the hero's romantic counterpart does not make the adjustment to fame and fortune quite so easily, and sometimes the hero meets someone new along the way.
With La Vie en rose, Dahan tries to mix it up by presenting these things out of order, flashing forward and backward throughout his tale, and including a few dazzlingly lengthy tracking shots, but the tone and timbre of the scenes are still the same. The film begins with Edith collapsing on stage, and then flashes back to her humble beginnings, raised in a brothel by the beautiful Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) and busking in the streets with her best pal Mômone (Sylvie Testud). A big shot club owner (Gerard Depardieu) discovers her, and she meets lots of famous people, including married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), who would become the tragic love of her life. As she gets more and more famous, she becomes more petulant and difficult, and comes to depend on drugs. The big climax/redemption comes when she is presented with "Non, je ne regrette rien," which became a big hit for her just a couple of years before her death. In these movies, there's always a famous "cameo" from a big star, and here it's Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Silhol), complimenting Ms. Piaf after a performance.
I think the secret of a good biopic is to choose a selection from the person's life, instead of trying to cram the entire life into two or three hours. The twin Capote movies (Capote and Infamous) did this well, focusing on presumably the most important chapter of the writer's life. This allows for time to slow down, for the film to linger on smaller moments that build character, nuance and personality, instead of bulldozing over whole months and years within minutes.
Sometimes these movies offer up a few nifty supporting roles to go along with the lead, such as June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon) in Walk the Line, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) in Ed Wood or Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) in Capote, but La Vie en rose wastes its supporting cast. Depardieu disappears after about 15 minutes onscreen, and the potent, sensual Testud is nothing more than a shadow or an echo of Edith; her biggest stretch is that she gets to throw a jealous fit. That leaves us with Ms. Cotillard as the movie's centerpiece, and its end-all, be-all. It's a spectacular one-woman show, but not really a movie.