“Americans want beauties, not me. I’m not the Parisian bombshell they expected. Can you see me as a chorus girl? Where’s my feather up the ass? They think I’m sad, they’re dumb. I don’t connect to them.”
‘La Vie en rose’, directed by Olivier Dahan in 2007, is a French biopic of singer Édith Piaf. Marion Cotillard plays Piaf, a legendary chanteuse, born in poverty in Paris and raised in a brothel in Normandy. Piaf is taken by her father who performs on the streets of the capital, where she is encouraged to sing. She is spotted by a nightclub owner who recruits her, starting her rise of fame, decadence, alcohol abuse and, ultimately, an early death. There are two things about this movie that stood out to me. Firstly, as with any biopic, the way the central subject is played and presented is key, and Cotillard is unbelievably adaptable in the role. She approaches the mercurial part with a kind of reckless bravery, and manages to deftly tread the line between presenting the eccentricities of the person and overacting. The second aspect of the movie that struck me was the unusual structure. Much like Oliver Stone’s ‘Nixon’, the timeframe of the narrative jumps, seemingly chaotically from Piaf’s death to her childhood and then to fragmentary incidents through her career. The use of the flashback is a common one in the genre, but here Dahan takes the life of the singer and creates a collage out of it. In doing so, he marries the themes of her songs with her life and, skilfully, mimics the fluid and un-linear nature of memory. You get the impression watching this film that you are somehow sharing Piaf’s own recollections of her past, but also engaging with a national and cultural ‘memory’ of the singer.
Would I recommend it? For Cotillard’s performance alone, yes, but also for the inventive way Dahan twists his narrative. The way the genre conventions are pushed to their limits without breaking is mesmerising. Watch in a double bill with ‘Nixon’.