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La Vie en Rose

Nicola Mostyn gets lost in the ups and downs of Edith Piaf’s life story

Published on July 2nd 2007.

La Vie en Rose

If this story of Edith Piaf’s life had been presented as a work of fiction you’d be tempted to accuse the creators of laying on the tragedy with a trowel.

Born in poverty to a singer mother and acrobat father, Piaf (whose real name was Edith Giovanna Gassion) was deserted by her mother, dumped on her brothel-owning grandmother, cared for by a kind-hearted prostitute, almost went blind, recovered, and was promptly yanked away by her father to work first in the circus and then collecting money as he performed his tricks on the streets of Paris.

‘The singer emerges as a prickly, passionate and strangely luckless creature. Love and support are wrenched away from her as quickly as they find her.’

A wide-eyed, ailing child, she’s so mute during those early years that it is a truly mesmerising moment when - urged by her father to “do something” to keep the crowd entertained - she opens her mouth and lets loose this incredible voice.

Years later, still scrabbling for money by singing on the streets, Edith is spotted by club owner Louis Leplée (Gerard Depardieu) rechristened Piaf (sparrow) and begins a lifelong career performing onstage before a rapturous audience. But although she quickly becomes the darling of France, the singer emerges as a prickly, passionate and strangely luckless creature. Love and support are wrenched away from her as quickly as they find her as, despite her talent and success, life deals her blow after tragic blow. This film seems to suggest that she was born in the gutter and no matter how far her star ascended she never quite managed to escape it.

Hers is a fascinating story, with no shortage of pathos, but the non-linear approach which director Olivier Dahan takes to the narrative does the film no favours. Piaf is sickly, drunk and addicted to drugs for much of her short life (she died aged 47) and so, as the films skips about various stages in her life, it isn’t always clear what period we are watching. While the flashbacks are occasionally used to good effect - such as when we see Piaf singing for the first time and then cut to a shot in which she talks of having sung for the last time - mostly this approach renders what should be a moving and dramatic story cluttered and confused. Put simply, the uncertain chronology reduces the impact of the story.

Piaf’s life seems so tangled it surely required no ambitious editing to spice it up. It is also annoying to have to disentangle one male mentor from another and this version of Edith from the next.

All of that aside, the film is rescued by the exquisite acting of Marion Cotillard, who carries off the portrayal of this complex character beautifully, her arresting face managing to be laden with emotion or, quite often, eerily blank, her defiant, birdlike frame getting ever more bowed, frail and beaten down over the years.

Perhaps the editing was a misguided attempt to reflect Piaf’s haphazard life, which emerges as so wretched and wonderful and bizarre that, despite the weaknesses, audiences are likely to be left with a powerful new perspective on the singer and particularly on her song ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, which could stand her biography and epitaph.

As the doctor says at one point to Piaf; “You are playing with your life.” “So?” she replies. “You have to play with something.”

La Vie en Rose is on at Cornerhouse and Odeon, The Printworks now.

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