Z To A: La Vie En Rose (2007)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: A swirling, impressionistic portrait of an artist who regretted nothing, writer-director Olivier Dahan’s ‘La Vie En Rose’ stars Marion Cotillard in a blazing performance as the legendary French icon Édith Piaf. From the mean streets of the Belleville district of Paris to the dazzling limelight of New York’s most famous concert halls, Piaf’s life was a constant battle to sing and survive, to live and love. Raised in her grandmother’s brothel, Piaf was discovered in 1935 by nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who persuaded her to sing despite her extreme nervousness. Piaf became one of France’s immortal icons, her voice one of the indelible signatures of the 20th Century.

– From New Line Cinema’s official site

I have been a fan of Édith Piaf since I was nineteen years old. This is due to my Oma’s influence because, of course, she was a fan long before I was. She lived during the era of Piaf and experienced her artistry and tragedy in real time. Sadly I discovered this years after she had succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease. I was never able to talk to her about Piaf during my visits, but I was able to listen to this music that she loved. Since then Piaf has been included among my favorite artists.

It’s no surprise then that I took an interest in La Vie En Rose when it was released in 2007. Of course I didn’t know any other twentysomethings who wanted to see it, so I went and saw it by myself at some obscure theater in Minneapolis. When I returned home I said, “If Marion Cotillard doesn’t win an Oscar for this film I’m going to smash my television.”

Fortunately, she did. My television remained intact.

In this series, La Vie En Rose is the first major departure from themes in the previous films. Each of these entries have been about films centered on families- families defending themselves, families destroying themselves, families slowly collapsing in spite of themselves, etc. In contrast Rose is about a woman’s singular history, a solitary figure who is standing alone in the face of adversity. However, she does defend herself, destroy herself and collapses time and time again. This is literal as well as metaphorical.

The main reason I own this film is the Cotillard’s astonishing performance as Piaf. She is Piaf. I was impressed by Joaquin Phoenix’s work in Walk The Line (2005), but this… Wow, this is in a class by itself. The makeup and physical transformation of Cotillard over the course of the film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The acting and lipsyncing is flawless (Cotillard discussed that she devoted hours to mimicking Piaf’s breathing, for God’s sake). There is a particular sequence in which Piaf plummets from exquisite happiness to absolute shock and agony, all in a fluid, unbroken take. It is one of the most impressive single-take scenes in cinema history.

Which brings me to my next point: Rose is an artist’s representation of her life and completely subjective. That is what sets this biopic apart from so many others. It remains doggedly true to its source material, which is Piaf herself. The film is disjointed and out of order, which- according to what I’ve read- is the way Piaf wrote her autobiography. Of this Piaf said, “I make no apologies for lack of chronology in my reminiscences, as one incident recalls another, so I put it down.”

In a way, the experience of watching Rose is just that. It’s like being immersed in flood of Piaf’s own memories. One memory touches off another and another before we ebb back to something forgotten or unseen. This presentation of events is intensely personal and makes no apologies, which goes hand in hand with her legendary “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (which translates to, “No, I’m not sorry for anything”).

The only drawback I can think of for La Vie En Rose is just how difficult Piaf was to work with, know and love. The film does not take these things lightly. Her demands, her tantrums and her vices are emotionally exhausting to watch.

Do you walk out of Rose liking Piaf? Not necessarily. Recently my mother and I were discussing her and she said, “Everyone knew she was difficult back then, and if you think about it, this was before the internet. This was just word of mouth. But everyone knew it.”

Despite this you can’t help but respect a woman who endured so much, whether it was dealt to her or brought on herself. At her worst Piaf could be described as one of those insufferable, difficult women, or perhaps a downright bitch. But with a film like La Vie En Rose representing her life, she is mesmerizing, and I’m glad I saw it.

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