Film Review: La Vie en Rose

by McKayle Davison

I’ve always been fascinated by Édith Piaf, the French singer who captivated the world in the 1940s and 50s with her heartbreaking and powerful voice.* I grew up listening to her albums, guessing what the French lyrics meant and thinking that I had never heard anything quite so beautiful as this person they called the “Sparrow.” Naturally, I was thrilled when I heard that French filmmaker Oliver Dahan had written and directed a movie about her life – La Vie en Rose. If nothing else, I thought, it would have to be interesting.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. I would have thought it impossible to make Piaf’s life story boring, but Dahan and co-writer Isabelle Sobelman seem to have done it.

Rose starts with Piaf’s heartbreaking childhood years. Abandoned by her mother (an aspiring singer) as a child, Édith’s soldier father leaves her and she spends her formative years in her grandmother’s brothel in Normandy. Just as she forms attachments and begins to feel secure, her father takes her back to Paris, where he tries and fails to make a living performing on the street as a contortionist. He soon discovers Édith’s talent and she begins singing for their supper.

The beginning is interesting – a childhood in a brothel, life on the streets – but it all goes downhill from there. Most of the film seems like a blur and cuts sporadically back and forth from young Édith in her prime, just getting started in the music business, to the prematurely old and wizened legend.

The film is somewhat redeemed by its actors. Marion Cotillard plays Édith from her teenage years until her death at age 47. Cotillard could be Édith – she is her spitting image, from her oddly thin eyebrows and hunched shoulders to her sorrowful eyes and unapologetic brashness. Gerard Depardieu is also refreshing in his brief appearance as Louis Leplée, the nightclub owner who discovered Édith and came up with her stage name – “La Môme Piaf” or “The Sparrow Kid.” But no matter how good the performances, they are not enough to save the film. An actor is only as good as the script – and this script is boring.

Aside from the opening about her childhood, the film is basically two hours of Édith throwing tantrums or, in her older years, shuffling ever so slowly from room to room. While she was famously high-strung and sickly, there was certainly more to her.

The film skims over what many would say were the most interesting parts of her life. For example, as an unwed teenager Édith gave birth to a daughter who died while she was still very young, and this barely warrants two minutes of screen time at the end of the film. There is virtually no mention of her two marriages, except for when she calls for her husband on her deathbed.

My very favorite story about Édith is omitted entirely. During World War II, she reportedly agreed to sing for German officers in exchange for the right to pose for pictures with French prisoners of war. She had fake passports made out of the pictures, which she returned to the prisoners, helping some of them escape. This is what comes to mind when I think of the woman she was – bold, spunky, and always ready to flout convention. I think this story is interesting enough for a whole movie, but it is not even mentioned in this film.

I just can’t wrap my mind around the choices the filmmakers made. There is no peak, no redemption. Maybe it loses something in translation, or maybe they were trying to show a different side of the legend. Either way, it was not for me.

I wouldn’t go see this film. To me, it’s more exciting to stay at home, pop The Very Best of Edith Piaf in the stereo, and lose myself in the tragic voice of the Sparrow.

*To hear the iVoryTowerz Radio take on Piaf, please check here.

(Promotional film poster from Picturehouse. To see the trailer for the film, please check below.)

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