Marion Cotillard delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in this surprising biopic on the life of French chanteuse Edith Piaf.
You wouldn't think that a two-hour-long French movie about a singer that has been dead for nearly 45 years would leave you at a loss for words to accurately describe it. But you'd be wrong. In fact, writer/director Olivier Dahan's biopic about the life of Edith Piaf is so stunning that the urge to discuss it in terms of being "a tour de force" and "a performance of a lifetime" is nearly overwhelming. But it deserves better than clichés, no matter how apt they may be.
La Vie en Rose tells the story of Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard), the pint-sized, piss-and-vinegar-filled French singer best known stateside for songs like "La vie en rose" and "Non, je ne regrette rien." Born in 1915, Piaf had what can best be described as a colorful and amazingly traumatic life. Her mother was an alcoholic street singer, her father was a circus contortionist, and she was sent to live at her grandmother's brothel as a child. There, she developed a case of conjunctivitis that left her blind for several years. And that's just for starters.
When she was 20, Piaf was discovered by nightclub owner Louis Leplée (played by Gérard Dépardieu) and got her start singing professionally. Her remarkably powerful voice ultimately allowed her to claw her way up from the mean streets of the Paris slums to international fame, hobnobbing with the likes of Jean Cocteau, Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier, and Marlene Dietrich.
The power in La Vie en Rose lies partly in the details of Piaf's incredible life, partly in Dahan's sweepingly impressionistic handling of it, and partly in Cotillard's remarkable portrayal of her. Although Cotillard has been in a few American movies (A Good Year, Big Fish), it literally grieves me to know that the profundity of her transformation will be lost on many. In real life, Cotillard is a remarkable beauty with a sweet and soft affect. Although funny and unquestionably talented, Piaf was about as far away from that as possible. Not especially attractive even during her best periods; hunched, bird-like and aged well beyond her years at her worst, Cotillard completely abandons herself to the vocal, physical, and aesthetic characteristics of the singer. It was an overwhelming performance, and I think even to say that she deserves an Oscar for it fails to do it justice.
But the power of La Vie en Rose does not only rest on Cotillard's ability to embody Piaf. Dahan's script swirls back and forth through Piaf's life in a near perfect manner, structuring his leaps through time, managing to give much-needed reprieves from the many tragedies Piaf suffered in such a way that he masterfully continues to build tension toward a wrenching climax. True, it can be difficult at points to know exactly what period of her life you are in, but somehow it doesn't entirely matter. Dahan truly invites you into the roller coaster that was Piaf's life, and when the movie is over, the emotional impact is unmistakable.
La Vie en Rose, quite simply, is the best movie I have seen all year. Because it is a foreign film, I fear that whether or not it is acknowledged as such by the American Academy remains to be seen. But in my opinion, to let the fact that it is subtitled deter you from this experience would be a tremendous mistake.