Like cockroaches, 60 Minutes and taxes, there have always been and will always be musician biopics. They've been with us since the birth of sound cinema, and while they might fall out of favor for a few years at a time, they will always return usually during a recession to remind us that anyone can go from rags to riches, become a righteously selfish, egotistical bastard, lose it all to drug addiction and get it back in a triumphant Last Big Number.
La Vie en Rose may have reached these shores a year or two too late to capitalize on the revival jump-started by Ray and Walk the Line, but despite its sizable plot gaps and clichés, this breathless recap of the life and times of French chanteuse Édith Piaf has a life and vitality lacking in most examples of the form. Like the best biopics, it's splashy and sumptuous, but director Olivier Dahan and lead Marion Cotillard in a career-defining performance never let you forget the grim, grimy details of the woman ironically given the stage name "little sparrow."
Cotillard knows she has the role of a lifetime here, and she doesn't waste one word, emotion or gesture in conveying the soul of a woman who, right up until her premature death in 1963, remained very much the sickly, wild child she was at the beginning. Part Judy Garland, part Dorothy Parker and part Gollum, her Piaf is a force to be reckoned with, a girl raised by circus freaks and whores, abandoned by her mother and neglected for long stretches by her father. Her ascent to fame is as inevitable as it is unlikely: While possessed of a tremulous, resonant voice that can cut through even the scummiest surroundings, she's downright petrified when faced with an unsmiling mass of haughty concert-goers.
Even when she learns how to seduce an audience, you still get the feeling that Piaf is most at home singing in cabarets and dives, drinking herself silly and running with any one of a variety of unsavory types, like her friend Momone (Sylvie Testud) or the mobsters she romances in her teens. It's a strange, fascinating dichotomy that Cotillard hammers home in scene after scene. When women threaten her, she lashes out, fangs and claws visible; but when Piaf is reprimanded by the men in her life, she cowers like a frightened animal. Far more conventionally beautiful than Piaf, Cotillard uses her entire body to get into character, hunching her shoulders, hanging her head and scrunching up her brow to suggest a small measure of the ugliness Piaf had learned to endure in real life.
To both its detriment and benefit, La Vie en Rose isn't one of those dully tasteful, amber-tinged biopics you see in the middle of the night on Canadian TV. Dahan shakes up the chronology of events a little: One minute you're watching the wide-eyed, preteen Piaf scrounge for change on the Paris streets; the next, you're subjected to a fragile, orange-haired woman in a convalescent retreat, old before her years. The director cruelly withholds a crucial bit of information for a death-bed revelation, but most of his cuts keep the movie fast and informative, and they rightly draw attention to the high-wire act that is Cotillard's performance. He knows when to play into biopic conventions Piaf's New York phase is introduced with a purposefully cheesy montage of newspaper headlines and when to subvert them, using grainy, hand-held photography to document her hand-to-mouth early years. Any Piaf movie worth seeing, of course, will build to her signature late-career number, the triumphant "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." But it's a testament to Dahan's directorial sleight of hand that you walk out of the theater pondering how ironic that title actually is.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].