A Life of Art and Anguish

Friday, June 15, 2007

"La Vie en Rose," a sprawling and passionate film about the miserable life of French singing idol Edith Piaf, 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. There are awful, silly scenes that ought to be on the cutting-room floor.

But they work. Olivier Dahan's 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, then slowly built a career as a cabaret singer and eventually a recording star. She had many lovers and lost the most beloved in a plane crash. She also had two husbands, a raft of addictions and other misfortunes before dying of cancer 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. 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, you will believe it.

Much of the credit goes to actress Marion Cotillard, who plays the adult Piaf. It is dazzling work, seamless and un-self-conscious. Cotillard gets the frailty, the awkwardness, the sexiness, the sadness, the coquettishness and finally the utter, self-annihilating misery. Cotillard leaves you loving her Piaf, wishing you could reach through the screen and steer her life a bit differently.

-- Philip Kennicott

La Vie en Rose PG-13, 103 minutes Contains drug use and sexual content. In French with subtitles. Area theaters.

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