The Diva’s Devils
Mayukh Sen on Amy and La vie en rose
What does it take for a legend to become human again—especially if that legend’s a woman? Our culture tends to lionize female musical greats who suffer or die young, romanticizing their tragedies anew. As far as biopics go, the female-singer-with-a-hellish-home-life is a genre unto itself. It began with Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart (1952) and stretched over to Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968), Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985), Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It? (1993), and Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in Selena (1997).
These films hew closely to the same basic structure: they chronicle the singer’s hardscrabble origins, her meteoric rise to fame, her success, her stardom’s gradual unspooling. As such, this genre clamors for reinvention (as Todd Haynes did in 1987’s experimental Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, starring Barbie dolls). More often than not, these films become de facto showcases for their leading actresses, measuring their capabilities: How skillful is their mimicry? How uncanny is their resemblance? How successfully can they bring these deities back down to earth?
Olivier Dahan’s La vie en rose (2007) and Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) are standard musician biopics in disguise. Both films play off the genre’s blueprint but flirt with structural innovation. They concern women whose stars rose far too early—the former, Edith Piaf; the latter, Amy Winehouse. La vie en rose, a fiction film, is temporally fragmented, jumping through time and disrupting the typical linearity that constricts such films. Amy travels along a straightforward path, but it’s a documentary, cobbled together from home movies and remembrances from those who knew Winehouse intimately.
Kapadia, whose past directorial output included such films as the fictional The Warrior (2001) and the documentary Senna (2010), made Amy a mere four years after Winehouse’s death. Her loss was—and still is—a gaping wound, fresh in public memory. As such, watching his film, and experiencing the rapturous praise it received in most quarters, was akin to seeing Winehouse’s legacy cement in real time. When Tony Bennett, in the film’s closing scenes, argues that she should be mentioned in the same breath as jazz’s great female crooners Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, the film seems to be canonizing her along those same lines. In contrast, forty-plus years passed between Piaf’s death and the release of La vie en rose. In those four decades, at least in France, Piaf’s legacy had crystallized into a legend of its own, her name evoked as the very voice of a country. With Amy, Kapadia is actively creating a mythology; with La vie en rose, Dahan is parsing a mythology that has already formed.
Kapadia places trust in found footage to fill the void that Winehouse’s death left us with: to give her a personhood she was so cruelly denied during her life, and to give us a sense of a poor soul pilloried by the press. In theory, relying on found footage should bring us closer to knowing who Winehouse was in “real” terms, at least more so than a fictive film like Dahan’s. Kapadia professed a desire to take Winehouse off the pedestal that death had put her on—in effect, to issue a corrective. As such, he arranges the film as a valentine to Winehouse. Even the title Amy suggests he’s in search of a first-name-basis intimacy. The result is that he treats his subject reverentially, but tiptoes around her and the ills that plagued her.
Amy, for all its posturing as a film that complicates the paparazzi images we saw, seems uninterested in Winehouse’s most potent creative vessel: her music. He treats her songs as a backdrop, subordinate to the ongoing car crash that was her life. Perhaps this was born out of a feeling that Winehouse’s music was the side of her that the public already knew, and didn’t bear revisiting. But what is a singer without her music; what is an artist without her art? When Winehouse sings, Kapadia makes curious choices, like illustrating her lyrics in cursive font on the screen. At times, he even accents them in color; at one point when Winehouse sings “brown,” the text turns brown. As her songs play, Kapadia frequently cuts to still images of Winehouse looking drugged-out and morose. Her music functions as the soundtrack to b-roll.
Kapadia’s approach betrays the music’s ability to speak for itself, perhaps his most fundamental miscalculation. Kapadia falls into the same trap that the public fell into during Winehouse’s lifetime. He fails to listen to her songs and what she was trying to tell us through them. The film then becomes, ultimately, equivalent to the local news interviewing neighbors and all of them insisting on the lovely soul of a fallen woman. The closest we get to Winehouse is through the recollections of Blake Fielder-Civil. A figure who hovered over Winehouse’s life, first as her lover and then as her husband, Fiedler-Civil speaks in a baritone whisper, as if plagued by a sense that he’s wronged her. He walks us through his relationship with her—their drug-fueled fights, their magnetic attraction—and it’s clear that they were terrible to and for each other. Aside from these moments, though, the effect of these voiceover interviews is stultifying. They tell us close to nothing, for these people—as they grew apart from Winehouse—became onlookers to the public spectacle of Winehouse’s downfall, just as we do. Through the film, we occupy the same vantage point as Winehouse’s friends, always at an arm’s length, and bear witness to her breakdown.
Rarely do we understand the art she created or how addiction pulled her away from it. Kapadia suggests the complexity of this relationship only occasionally. Three quarters of the way through the film, Winehouse learns, on a live telecast from London, that she’s just won a Grammy for Album of the Year. She stares mouth agape at the screen above her, appearing as fragile as a sparrow. Seconds later, though, her childhood friend recalls that Winehouse had pulled her aside, and, off camera, told her, “This is so boring without drugs.” This comes as a jolt—a sign that Winehouse had, at this point in her life, begun a steep descent from which she wouldn’t recover. Scenes later, we witness Winehouse at her nadir: at a concert in Belgrade, she gets on stage and refuses to sing for the audience, strung out and entirely unaware of where she is. “Sing,” the increasingly petulant crowd demands, to which Winehouse rolls her eyes, as if to say, What the hell do I owe you?
Amy goes through all the motions of presenting Winehouse’s plunge to death as it happened, but the approach feels amiss, for its structure can’t communicate the complicated idea that Winehouse’s artistry was inextricable from her person. In the film, Winehouse’s music seems to run parallel to her losing battles. The two never come into concert with one another.
In the near decade that’s passed since the release of La vie en rose, the consensus around the film seems to be that it’s more of a showcase for Marion Cotillard’s barnstormer of a performance than a cinematic achievement of its own. It was the film that propelled Cotillard from continental to international stardom overnight, culminating in her Oscar triumph. Dahan’s film has, deservedly, gotten a bad rap for its ragged structure. His preoccupation with time-hopping seems like an unnecessary directorial flourish, a distracting experiment with what is usually a staid, linear narrative form. The hallmarks of genre still remain—in particular, a predictable montage that telegraphs Edith Piaf’s transition from humble beginnings to success—but the film feels stitched together in a panic.
In theory, such a structure would obfuscate Piaf. Dahan seems to stack the film against his lead actress, arranging it like a test for her: how well can you perform in these circumstances, he seems to ask Cotillard? Can you convey genuine emotion underneath piles of makeup? How about a script fueled by paroxysms of suffering?
After Cotillard’s Oscar win, there was a sneaking suspicion that she had benefited from the Academy’s timeworn tradition of rewarding women for uglying up. Her subsequent career has proven this initial assessment wrong. Cotillard, particularly in recent years, has shown herself to not only be a deft actress who can handle the physical and psychological gymnastics of a role like Piaf, but also a performer of enormous generosity—think of the grace notes she brought to Rob Marshall’s Nine (2009), the brooding loner she played in Midnight in Paris (2011), how she embodied the deadening stupor of depression in the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night (2014). Her style is earthbound and naturalistic; she possesses a high emotional intelligence, and she lets this empathy for her characters guide her performances. Conversely, Dahan’s subsequent directorial output, in both My Own Love Song (2010) and Grace of Monaco (2014), confirmed the feeling that he was prone to working in broad, sketchy theatrics.
Cotillard attacks the role of Piaf as a prizefighter would—it’s a performance of immense stature, and her approach is gallant and mighty. This is what the role calls for; she cranes her neck and widens her eyes when she speaks, outfitted with a prosthetic nose and comically oversized dentures. One of the film’s most famous scenes, often talked of when discussing the performance’s greatness, is the one in which Piaf learns of the death of her lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan. She travels through her house like a tornado, screaming his name over and over again with helpless rage. The scene unfolds over the course of a single long take, wherein Cotillard must cycle through a catalog of emotions. She boils with rage; she freezes in disbelief; she scrunches her face in terror; she wilts from grief. Cotillard goes from defeated to utterly destroyed in seconds, and she’s convulsing on her knees by scene’s end. Dahan’s camera then follows her as she crawls onto a stage, where she begins to sing. This is Dahan’s didactic way of demonstrating how Piaf funneled her life’s heartbreak directly into her art, but Cotillard plays this transition from panic-stricken sorrow to composure immaculately.
Based solely on scenes like this, Cotillard’s work could seem like a bundle of actorly affectations, the kind so often deployed with the endgame of winning awards in mind. Yet Cotillard’s approach to Piaf recalls what Pauline Kael observed of Ronee Blakley in her seminal review of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975): “Her fragility is so touching and her swaying movements are so seductively musical that, perhaps for the first time on the screen, one gets the sense of an artist's being consumed by her gift.” Blakley played Barbara Jean, a tragicomic riff on Loretta Lynn and the film’s exposed nerve. She was a singer who could woo a whole country but had the soul of a broken child; when she opened her mouth, it summoned forth a wellspring of pain. Blakley, who’d barely acted before, brought the same intensity to the role that critics had praised Diana Ross for in Lady Sings the Blues, and, later, Bette Midler for in The Rose (1979): a certain naturalism that comes from being a singer. In Blakley, Altman found a performer who could source Barbara Jean’s pain and communicate it through song.
Cotillard does not sing on her own, a decision the crew made out of deference to Piaf’s singularity of talent, but the highlights of her performance arrive in the most unexpected of moments: when she is onstage, lip-syncing Piaf’s voice. Cotillard, like Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline or Angela Bassett’s Tina Turner before her, must walk a tightrope. She must parrot Piaf’s gestures, but also reimagine as an actor a woman who has existed as a hazy symbol in public memory. There’s certainly risk in this approach—these sequences could temporarily remove the viewer from the film’s universe, reminding us that what we’re seeing is but a mere imitation.
Consider, though, the film’s final scene, in which Piaf sings “Non, je ne regrette rien.” Dahan bathes Cotillard in white light, isolating her in the frame so that she appears as though a luminous beam emerging from a black cloud. Cotillard conveys a sense of the pain that’s burrowed in Piaf’s soul and understands that this is what Piaf drew upon to create her music. It’s as if Piaf’s music is activating Cotillard’s gestures. Dahan makes certain choices that undercut the visceral power of this scene—cutting to snapshots of Piaf sweating on her deathbed, her as a child picking weeds in a garden, audience members listening on with wistful admiration—but Cotillard soldiers on, as if offering the entirety of Piaf's life to us in the span of these few minutes.
We never get a sense of the relationship, really, between an artist and her art from Kapadia’s film. At the center of Amy’s good intentions is a void where Winehouse should be. What emerges, instead, is a bundle of adjectives—warm, funny, tortured, gifted—in place of a person. Contrast this with Cotillard’s vivid, wounded Piaf at the center of the dizzying maze that is La vie en rose. Kapadia tries to glean truth about his subject from archival footage, which is ostensibly rooted in the “real”; Dahan strives for verisimilitude through the fictive, and he achieves it with Cotillard. Kapadia’s film engenders pity for Winehouse, not a sense of the genius so tragically aborted. Perhaps that genius could’ve been cracked had Kapadia opted for an approach like Dahan’s: heightened and excessively dramatic, reenacting rather than borrowing images from reality and striving for truth within those contours.