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La Vie en Rose

Biopic about singer Edith Piaf reveals her troubled personal life

By Drew Halfnight

La Vie en Rose
France: French with subtitles
Directed by Olivier Dahan, starring Marion Cotillard

Listening to her recordings, you could easily mistake Edith Piaf for a product of Paris’s gilded elite: her voice trills with noble pride and grande école articulation. But in the biopic La Vie en Rose, French director Olivier Dahan reveals the troubled back-story to Piaf’s singing career.

The result is a catalogue of cruelties, from Piaf’s upbringing in a brothel, her four years of blindness from keratitis, her teenage years spent singing for sous on the streets of Paris, her relationship with an abusive pimp, the murder of her mentor, morphine addiction, and so on until her own early death at 47 from liver cancer.

Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard steals the show, first as the young, brash, oft-intoxicated Edith Giovanna Gassion (a nightclub owner later gave her the stage name “Piaf,” meaning “sparrow”), then as the volatile diva, and finally as a shrivelled, decrepit 40-something.

Cotillard’s Piaf is the quintessential Paris reveller, spilling her passion around like a too-full glass, loving for love’s sake, and of course, ringing off terrific one-liners. When Piaf insists on returning to the stage after fainting, a doctor warns that she’s playing with her life. Piaf replies, Et alors? Il faut bien jouer avec quelque chose. (“So? You’ve gotta play with something.”)

A longish film at two hours and 20 minutes, La Vie en Rose risks harping on two notes — calamity, song, calamity, song — but is sustained by original camera work, meticulous period sets and masterful audio. A former music video director, Dahan brings Piaf’s performances to life by drawing on new voice talent (Jil Aigrot sings some of the score) as well as re-edited versions of original recordings — both lip-synched impeccably by Cotillard.

Yet, in the film’s most powerful moment, director Dahan mutes Piaf’s singing altogether, emphasizing the real person behind the legendary voice.

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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