Singing Lessons
By Chris Wisniewski

La Vie en rose
Dir. Olivier Dahan, France, Picturehouse

The biopic, however uninteresting, is among the most schizophrenic of film genres: at the level of performance, the push is always towards verisimilitude—imitation in speech and gait, appearance, and, when the subject is a musician, song—while at the level of narrative, there’s an almost mechanical adherence to formula. In fact, it’s hard to imagine another category of film that so often feels false and fabricated. Most biopics chart the same inevitable course: childhood trauma, rise to fame, descent into addiction/illness/self-destruction, and triumph/failure in the face of adversity. That there’s something excruciatingly boring about these movies is evident from their relative indistinguishability. What’s the difference between Ray and Walk the Line, really, when you get down to the nuts and bolts? While it might even be true (though it’s highly implausible) that these films are faithful biographies—and that it’s their subjects themselves, rather than their screenwriters, who are responsible for their overly convenient three-act structure—there’s still no reason why as moviegoers we should care about Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash or Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles or Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin or Russell Crowe’s John Nash.

The cult of the performance actually makes matters worse, as more of these pictures get made—and watched—because of the prestige and awards-buzz that middlebrow film culture attaches to their central star turns. And while a great performance can go some way towards making a biopic watchable, these movies rise and fall on their abilities to approach their subjects with a modicum of inventiveness and structural ambition: I would sit through Capote and The Queen ten times each before watching Walk the Line again—not because Philip Seymour Hoffman and Helen Mirren are more successful imitators than Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon but because Capote and The Queen take a dramatically fresh approach to their subjects, rather than reducing them to conventional plot mechanics (and to those who object that Capote and The Queen aren’t really biopics, the question is: on what grounds do we make the distinction, save that they’re actually about something and manage to be somewhat revealing about the people they portray).

Despite all that, it’s impossible to write about La Vie en rose, Olivier Dahan’s new biopic about the life of Edith Piaf, without hurling superlatives at Marion Cotillard, who’s quite astonishing in the starring role. So I might as well get it out of the way: Cotillard transforms herself here, altering the way she walks and carries herself, the way she talks and breathes. It’s indeed a great performance, one sure to win her awards and plaudits through the early months of 2008: lived-in in the most physical sense, subtle in the most unexpected ways, emotionally raw, and utterly captivating. Piaf was a woman ravaged by life—by her death, at the age of 47, she looked like she could have been in her sixties or seventies. The first-rate makeup team (led by Didier Lavergne and Loulia Sheppard) deserves huge credit for making the physical transformation believable, though it’s Cotillard who sells it, without ever losing sight of the woman beneath the prosthetics.

Frequently, in musical biopics, there’s a fetishism of an actor’s ability to perform vocal imitation, but Dahan and Cotillard have made the smart decision to dub Piaf’s voice for the singing. There’s no reason, independent of verisimilitude, why a director or actor should prefer that the actor sing; it’s just that most lip-syncing looks like lip-syncing. It’s difficult to match the movement and breathing—the rhythm of a singer—without singing the part oneself, but Cotillard manages that without having to reproduce Piaf’s impossibly singular voice. In ways, Piaf was as much an actress as she was a singer. In her training with Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe), depicted here as the most grueling and transformative period of her artistic career, Piaf honed a dramatic style as a performer that owed almost as much to her hands as it did to her voice. By using recordings of Piaf, Dahan shifts emphasis towards the broad physicality of Cotillard’s performance and, by extension, the physicality of Piaf herself.

La Vie en rose has more of an emotional arc than a narrative one, and Dahan avoids a literal-minded adherence to linear storytelling and biography. This may be due in part to an assumption that much of the audience has some familiarity with Piaf, though advanced knowledge is hardly a prerequisite. Regardless, the approach seems appropriate for Piaf’s life, loaded as it was with too many fantastic incidents and outrageous turns of fortune to fit conveniently into this film’s bloated two-hour-plus running time. Raised for some years in a brothel, Piaf went temporarily blind as a child. She rose to fame quickly after she was discovered singing in the streets, and then fell out of public favor amid suspicions that she was involved in the murder of her manager, Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu). She proved resilient, though, ascending to her legendary status while battling heartache, morphine addiction, and, finally, cancer. Dahan has broken her life into small fragments and fashioned a strangely structured, purely emotional epic out of the pieces: he jumps back and forth across time periods unrelentingly, and leaves arguably the most important episode from Piaf’s early life until the very end of the film (when it comes, it almost plays like a twist ending, reframing everything that came before). The effect is compellingly odd—sometimes exhilarating, often jarring, and occasionally confusing. Though there’s a vague chronological thrust here (most of the scenes of Piaf’s childhood come towards the beginning; her death does, indeed, come at the end), the film has an uncommon and surprisingly effective shapelessness.

It’s best to think of La Vie en rose less as a biopic than as a melodrama, in both the literal (“musical drama”) and generic sense: the emphasis here is on performance and emotion, and accordingly, the film is built on artifice and overwrought excess, pitched to a feverish, sometimes numbing, intensity. So its structure is a perfect fit, diffusing the moments of excess before they become too exhausting, foregrounding Piaf’s emotional journey above the chronology of her life. Her ill-fated love affair with the boxer Marcel Cerdian (Jean-Pierre Martins) may be the film’s emotional center, but before we meet him, we already know that it will end, probably badly; still, that only makes the dazzling sequence shot that concludes their love affair more otherworldly and powerful. Before that, as their romance blossoms, Piaf’s New York love affair has the look and feel of something right out of a movie, complete with painted backdrops standing in for the New York skyline.

Like any melodrama, La Vie en rose is all about lost parents, lost loves, and lost children. Dahan’s Piaf is ultimately ill equipped for the tragedies life throws at her, but through her music, she achieves transcendence, however briefly. As she slowly loses the physical ability to perform, it’s as though she’s falling from a state of grace, plummeting back down to earth. When she finally sings “Non, je ne regrette rien” at the Paris Olympia towards the close of the film, she’s already wrecked and desiccated, teetering on the precipice into which she will inevitably fall. Yet, somehow, her magnificent voice becomes a cry of defiance—as though singing those words ("No, I regret nothing") with enough force will simply make it so.