Over the weekend, I watched La Vie En Rose, the biopic of French singer Edith Piaf, starring Marion Cotillard in her Oscar-winning role.
Normally, I'm not that big on 2 hour and 20 minute movies with subtitles. It's just too hard to multitask while I'm watching them. This is the kind of movie I'd add to my Netflix queue and then keep moving it down, intending to watch it someday. Well, I've been a little neglectful of my queue. It popped up at the top and I got it in the mail!
Despite what I just said about subtitles, I do enjoy a good biopic, especially if the subject is someone I've heard of, but don't really know all that much about. And I didn't really know anything about Piaf, except that she had a beautiful voice, a short, tragic life, and while she was wildly popular in France, she never quite enjoyed the same degree of adulation in the United States.
Director Olivier Dahan does a great job at portraying the horrific conditions of Piaf's childhood: she was neglected by her drunken, poverty-stricken mother and lived for awhile with her grandmother, who ran a brothel. As a small child, an illness rendered her blind for a time. Eventually she was reclaimed by her father, who made his living as a circus contortionist.
In her 20s, she was singing on the streets of Paris for small change, where she was discovered by a nightclub owner, played by Gerard Depardieu. He gave her some training and put her on stage. Eventually she got a new last name, piaf, which means sparrow, and a new image - dressing in black.
Cotillard portrays Piaf from her 20s until her death in 1963 from cancer at age 47. But a toll of drinking and drugs (she became addicted to morphine after a serious car accident, and survived two more crashes) and the ravages of her fatal illness made her look about 20 years older.
The structure of La Vie En Rose can be kind of confusing - we're constantly moving back and forth in time between Piaf as an adult and as a child. (Why can't someone just tell a story from start to finish?) Important parts of her story are told quickly in a flashback at the end of the movie, as she's dying. For example, we don't find out until the very end that Piaf had a daughter, who died of meningitis at age 2. We don't even learn some basic facts, such as how many times she was married.
And I don't think the movie even mentions World War II. (Some considered Piaf a traitor for performing at social gatherings for German forces in occupied France. Following the war, she claimed she had worked for the French resistance.)
But Cotillard delivers a memorable performance in showing us Piaf's rather chaotic, at times reckless life. We see her transformed from a savvy street kid to a polished performer with tremendous stage presence. Piaf was a determined, strong-willed woman who overcame horrible deprivation using the one gift she had - her voice. Plus, Cotillard just looks right for the role: small and delicate, with huge eyes.
I was very surprised when I read that Cotillard didn't actually do very much of the singing in the movie. Most of the time she's lip-synching while a French singer named Jil Aigrot does the actual performing. But apparently, Cotillard spent a great deal of time getting down Piaf's on-stage mannerisms.
At the conclusion of the movie, after watching all of the horrible things that happened to Piaf in her life, it was thrilling to hear her signature song - "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (I regret nothing) - as a moment of triumph.