Music biopics invariably come in for condescension in some critical quarters — celluloid "greatest hits" albums, they often are called. I disagree. There are few movie thrills as satisfying as watching an actor or actress successfully bring a singer's personality to electrifying, oversized, big-screen life — especially if the subject is someone who has been forgotten or faded from view when the movie is released. I still recall how excited I was watching Gary Busey resuscitate the late Buddy Holly in 1978's milestone, The Buddy Holly Story.
La Vie en Rose does the same for Edith Piaf, the admired French chanteuse known as "the little sparrow." Piaf might not be as famous in this country as Holly — or Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or other subjects of recent hit biopics — but this film shows how universally appealing a great song and mesmerizing voice can be to everyone. And, like the best music biopics, it is anchored by a sensational star turn. In this case, it's from actress Marion Cotillard as Piaf.
La Vie en Rose is more ambitious structurally than Ray or Walk the Line, playing with chronology in a way that constantly calls attention to its artfulness — the director, Olivier Dahan, is a music-video veteran. But it basically follows Piaf's life from the squalor of being raised in a brothel to worldwide fame.
It also portrays her as a constant nervous wreck or worse who can only truly be set free by singing from the soul — like Judy Davis' masterly interpretation of Judy Garland or Diana Ross' Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues.
Piaf, born in 1915 amid the turmoil of World War I, died in 1963 before reaching 50. As La Vie en Rose makes clear, her body was thoroughly worn out from illness, a morphine addiction, car-crash injuries and the emotional devastation of losing a lover, French boxer Marcel Cerdan, in a plane crash. But, oh, when she sings!
Piaf was given the name "la mome piaf" ("the kid sparrow") by a club impresario who discovered her but later was murdered, apparently by her gangster boyfriend. In the film, Gerard Depardieu plays that supportive discoverer, Louis Leplee.
Actress Cotillard, who plays Piaf, only lip-synchs her classics like "La Vie en Rose," "Milord" and "Je Ne Regrette Rien" (the bittersweet "I Have No Regrets"), but she so successfully interprets and inhabits Piaf's dramatic performance gestures that it doesn't matter at all. Cotillard absolutely owns this film. She is a fantastic and towering presence — as towering as the 4-foot-8-inch Piaf must have been to those who saw her.
When the film calls for it, she looks devastated, old, gloomy and melancholy. Sometimes she even looks this way when playing the young Piaf, whose upbringing in a brothel and early street singing was tough.
But Cotillard — presumably like Piaf herself — can turn it around just like that. She can be pixie-like or fiery, dreamily romantic (as when meeting boxer Cerdan, played by Jean-Pierre Martins) on a New York dinner date or wizened and courageously determined, as when ill and preparing for late-in-life concerts at Paris' Olympic Hall. The make-up and costuming help, and her long dark hair and penciled eyebrows highlight her dramatic persona.
Music biopics have a way of netting Academy Award nominations and wins — Jamie Foxx in Ray, Busey in The Buddy Holly Story, Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line. This is right up there with them, even if it is a French film. It translates easily. Just like great music. Grade: A-