Sunday, February 24, 2008

Keep your Eye on the Sparrow

One more Oscar nominee in a major category before we leave 2007 behind (and before the outcome of tonight's awards).

La Vie en Rose (d. Olivier Dahan)

In one of her signature chansons, French chanteuse Edith Piaf sings proudly of how she has no regrets. Based on the evidence presented in Olivier Dahan's Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose, she probably should have had a few.

She might have regretted being abandoned by her mother and father as a child and left to be brought up in an -- ahem -- house of ill repute. Or perhaps she could have regretted the disease she contracted that nearly cost her her sight. Or she maybe ought to have regretted drinking herself to death (liver cancer) by the age of 47.

Many would.

But I guess she didn't. More power to her.

As a girl, Edith's circus-folk parents leave her to fend for herself in a Paris bordello, where she becomes a surrogate child to Titine (Emmanuelle Seigneur), one of the employees there. When her contortionist father returns for her, Edith doesn't want to leave, but he drags her with him and immediately starts using her in his act. It quickly becomes apparent that Edith's singing draws bigger crowds than her father's bending and twisting and soon, she is out on her own, singing for spare change on the Parisian streets. The impressario Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) takes a shine to her, dubs her "La Mome Piaf" ("the little sparrow"), and launches her on her career.

Piaf's life from there on is riddled with tragedy. Leplee is murdered and she is implicated (though later exonerated). She falls in love with the married boxer, middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), only to see him perish in a plane crash. She suffers through several car accidents that leave her bent and brittle. By the time of her death, she appears to be nearly twice her 47 years.

Marion Cotillard, in an Oscar-nominated performance, inhabits the role of Edith and undergoes a startling physical transformation, playing the little sparrow from her vibrant early twenties to her palsied, shambling end. Cotillard doesn't do the singing here (she lip-sync's rather seamlessly to Piaf's original vocals), but her performance of the songs is remarkable; head cocked to one side, standing on the verge of collapse, expressive hands darting and emoting, her body language sings volumes.

As rendered by Cotillard, Piaf is mercurial, hyper-dramatic, occasionally rude and aggressively French. "I don't get Americans and they don't get me," she huffs and never makes any effort to change that reality.

La Vie en Rose falls back a little too often on the usual arc of a musical biopic (see Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story for the full rundown of those plot points), but gets away with it because, after all, Piaf is the woman who forged the diva template that all the others follow. The story also benefits from some wild, magic-realism touches, as when young Edith is visited by the recently canonized (and thirty tears dead) Saint Therese, who remains her patron (matron?) saint for the rest of her days. Or when she enjoys breakfast in bed with the recently deceased Marcel.

Piaf is a difficult artiste to pin down, and the movie wisely doesn't really try, presenting her in all of her wayward, tragic glory and letting it speak for itself. Why not? I have it on good authority that she doesn't regret any of it.

3 1/2 stars

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