Piaf: A Life Made for Melodrama

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

"La Vie en Rose," a sprawling and passionate film about the miserable life of French singing idol Edith Piaf, which opens Filmfest DC tonight, ought to be a lousy movie.

It commits too many of the sins of the hackneyed biopic about an artist, verging on melodrama at times while flirting with the dubious proposition that great pain drives great art.

There are moments that graze the near boundaries of the land of camp. Young Edith, for instance, is forced by her father, a dirt-poor, two-bit street performer, to help him win coins from an indifferent audience. He stands the poor, awkward girl in front of a dubious crowd. Do something, anything, he tells the bewildered girl. So she opens her mouth and out comes that magnificent voice singing the only thing she knows -- "La Marseillaise." And the crowd is enraptured.

That's an awful scene, a silly scene, a scene that ought to be on the cutting room floor. But it works. It leaves a lump in your throat even as you think, yuck, how horribly French.

Olivier Dahan's new film is both faithful to and freewheeling with the facts of Piaf's life. Much is left out, but the essentials are there. Her mother was a failed and alcoholic singer, her father a circus performer who specialized in contortionism. Her early years were spent living in a brothel run by her grandmother. She had a child early (who died), became a street singer in her own right, lived a relatively squalid life, yet slowly built a career as a cabaret singer and then a recording star. She had many lovers and lost the most beloved of them in a plane crash. She also had two husbands, a raft of addictions and other misfortunes, and died of cancer terribly early, in 1963, when she was not quite 48 years old.

If you're making a biopic about a long-dead composer or painter, you ought to stick to the proposition that it's only the art that matters. Mozart didn't write in a minor key because he was having a bad day. Great painters of the Renaissance were not likely tortured individuals in the manner of 19th-century romantic poets. Few film directors, however, will commit to the intellectual self-discipline to keep their focus on the art.

Nor does Dahan. But in the case of Piaf, the conceit that fatally flaws almost every other melodrama about art -- that art is merely the bubbling up of deep wounds and inner anguish -- may in fact be true. Dahan sets out to overwhelm you with that proposition and by the end, unless you have a heart of stone or a whole lot more intellectual self-discipline than this critic, you will believe it.

Much of the credit goes to actress Marion Cotillard, who plays the adult Piaf. It is dazzling work, so seamless and un-self-conscious that you can only repeat the cliche directed at every other film fundamentally based on impersonating a known, historical figure: She is Piaf. Cotillard gets the frailty, the awkwardness, the sexiness, the sadness, the coquettishness and finally the utter, self-annihilating misery. Piaf could be a monster, a monster drunk and a monster prima donna. But Cotillard leaves you loving her Piaf, wishing you could reach through the screen and steer her life a bit differently. She's also a world-class lip-syncer.

But Dahan, who deploys cliches like an army of emotional shock troops, gets the most important credit. He has sliced and diced and jumbled Piaf's life with a strange mix of recklessness and panache. Logical, time-based sequences are purposely interrupted, so that you are not sure whether she's addicted to morphine because of a car crash, or is already morphine-addled when the debilitating accident happened in 1951. She is seen, throughout the movie, simultaneously as a child, a wealthy star and an enfeebled addict.

It's maddening at times, but also essential to the power of the film. By mixing ample quantities of her tragic childhood into the relatively few scenes of her successful years as an international icon, Dahan convinces you that she never really had any good times. The demons never left her, success never redeemed the early sadness. She was a mess, from beginning to end. Maybe that's not fair, and to be sure, Dahan focuses obsessively on the tragic, both in her life and especially in her music (the oeuvre is much wider and encompassing than the handful of anguished torch songs he features).

But the fractured narrative also suggests the French notion of the past as always present, the sad fact that we constantly feel our past throbbing in us in ways as tangible as, or more tangible than, the present moment that eludes us in its passing. The sadness of the past is refreshed with every new trauma, and yet one can't leave it behind. The past, after all, is all we have.

That is the essential idea behind the song that Dahan suggests is Piaf's highest summation, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" ("No Regrets"), a philosophical condensation of the hardest truth she learned in life. Music, in ways that no one has ever been able to explain, captures this truth in ways that no other art really can. It is art felt only in passing, made sweet by anticipation and sad by memory, but ineluctable in the moment and over with before anything can be held or studied or understood.

Piaf's voice made all that somehow more tangible. After Dahan's movie, you may be reluctant to listen to her sing in the way that so many of us generally do: As a voice in the background, heard over cocktail glasses and idle chatter. In this extraordinary film, he convinces us that Piaf's art is not to be enjoyed casually or promiscuously. It is too raw and too important to do her that disservice.

La Vie en Rose (103 minutes, in French with subtitles) is rated PG-13 for drug use and sexual content. It is being shown tonight at 6 to open Filmfest DC at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. It opens in Washington June 15. For festival information, see

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