Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

La vie en rose

(France/UK/Czech Republic, 2007)

In ‘60s rock there were The Beatles, and there was everybody else. In 20th century male popular singers, there was Sinatra, and there was everybody else. But with female singers of the last century, we got very, very lucky. There was Garland, there was Holiday, there is Streisand, there is Franklin, and there was Piaf. I couldn’t really rank them, though I suppose Piaf would be my personal least favorite, merely because I don’t know her genre that well and don’t quite have the ear for it. It’s partly a French thing. But that doesn’t detract from her right to a place with those others in any way.

Abandoned by her mother and then her father, raised in a whorehouse and then in the circus, then performing on the streets. Blinded as a child, then recovered or healed, depending on what mythology you prefer to believe. Heavy drinker, morphine addict. No less than three bad car accidents. The love of her life who died in a plane crash as he was on his way to see her. Dead at the age of 47 from liver cancer. Wow! She must have been the luckiest woman who ever lived. I’m surprised she was never abducted by aliens. I mean, could you write a better recipe for a tragedy, and a great singer? Would you exchange longevity for a life lived at that level, for a chance at greatness? I think I would. Some artists would kill for a biography like that.

The title is from her signature song, and it means “Life in pink.” The French title was La Môme, which means “The Kid.” I like that title, but am not sure what it refers to, except that she was 4’8”, hence the stage name Piaf, “sparrow.” In fact, unless you are a Piaf scholar, there will be a lot of things you will be unsure of when you watch this movie. It jumps around from her childhood to her deathbed without apparent logic. At the end, I decided the idea was that these were the jumbled memories of a woman whose mind was failing. That’s okay with me; a biopic is very hard to make well, and often thankless because we’ve seen so many of them and just about every way of telling them has become clichéd. There is just no way to squeeze a whole, full life into 2 hours and 20 minutes. Abbreviation is necessary, but painful. And after all, if you want a history lesson you can read a book. A movie should give impressions, and they don’t have to be just the high and low points, but those points that best illuminate the character. Still, sometimes you wish … I mean, we skip from 1940 to 1947. Wasn’t there a little thing called World War Two in there? At one point we see a man who she refers to her husband (she had three). Where did he come from? And very late in the game we learn about a child. So, like I said, not a straight bio by any means.

These are minor carps, though. I liked this film a lot, and I learned a bit. But the chief pleasure here is without question the performance of Marion Cotillard. First there’s the physical appearance. Take a look at her in A Good Year, and compare it with her as Piaf. Not the same woman. Then there’s the height. Cotillard is 5’6”, which nobody would call petite, a full ten inches taller than the Little Sparrow. You hear of actors growing into a role. Cotillard shrunk into this one. She somehow seems to have made herself smaller. (Sure, José Ferrer did it with Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge, but he was on his knees.) I’m not quite sure how she did it, either. In long shots she doesn’t look tiny in comparison to others, but somehow my impression is of her as a smaller woman. Partly it is her posture, which always seems to be cringing away from a possible attack. Later, she was prematurely hunched, like a very old woman. But most of all it’s just that she somehow seemed to have played it small. There is Oscar buzz, and you can sure see why.

With a biopic about a singer, there is a crucial decision that must be made: Do you let the actor sing, or use tapes of the real singer? When Larry Parks starred in The Jolson Story, the decision was easy. Jolson was still alive, and recorded the sound track. Gary Busey sang and played guitar for Buddy Holly. Diana Ross did a pretty good job of being Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues [totally disagree], without slavishly imitating her. Kevin Spacey sounded very much like Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon not only sang for Johnny and June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, but learned to play the guitar, too. Jamie Foxx didn’t try to sing Ray Charles (good decision, Jamie) but he did play his own piano! I guess the two questions are, how true-to-life do you want the sound to be, and just how important is the distinctiveness of the voice to the story. If they ever do a biopic of Barbra Streisand, they’d better use her recordings or I won’t go see it. On the other hand, I’ve heard a fair number of Judy Garland impersonators over the years.

With this one I think it was a no-brainer. Nobody has ever sounded quite like Piaf, before or since, and the uniqueness of her voice was the chief reason for her fame, so they went with the recordings, and it works very well.