“Americans want beauties, not me. I’m not the Parisian bombshell they expected. Can you see me as a chorus girl? Where’s my feather up the ass? They think I’m sad, they’re dumb. I don’t connect to them.” – Edith Piaf (Marion Cotilliard)
Biographies on famous singers have been made before. Kevin Spacey played Bobby Darin. This last year, Chadwick Boseman played James Brown. Angela Bassett played Tina Turner. But in 2007, Marion Cotilliard left them all behind when she portrayed Edith Piaf, one of music’s most tragic yet iconic French singers whose life was aided and explained through songs we still hear today.
Talk about a tall order for Cotilliard in her breakout role. La Vie En Rose won her an Oscar and the love of moviegoers everywhere. But was it solely because of her performance? A lot of the film’s attraction comes from the way it spins her story in a twisted way that leaves viewers guessing, even if they’re familiar with Piaf’s life story.
Known as the “Little Sparrow,” Piaf (Cotilliard) made her name as a French crooner born to an alcoholic street singer and circus performer (who, in turn, was born to a madam). La Vie En Rose is an un-chronological look at her life, bouncing between her time on tour in the U.S. and life making it big while dealing with heartache and alcoholism. The story punctuates its pivotal moments with her songs, like “Padam Padam” and, perhaps the most famous, “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien,” which acts as her anthem in the end when she recounts her life and lack of regrets.
The structure of the film is disorganized and can be confusing if audiences don’t pay enough attention. Really, its progression is a matter of association. Framed as an interview between Piaf and an American journalist, her story takes life as she remembers it. She might not tell him all of it, but she is entranced by the memories that come with just the smallest mention of people. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes is at the end when everything comes together in a portrayal of the greatest tragedy of her life and the moment of her death. It’s a shock for those who don’t know her story and __ to both those familiar and new to Piaf.
But as phenomenal and untraditional as La Vie En Rose presents its story, it’s good old-fashioned acting that carries it to the finish line. With names like Gerard Depardieu accompanying Cotilliard on screen, she’s not alone as a driving performer. But the nature of the movie leaves everything on her shoulders, and she carries it beautifully without mugging for the camera. Everything depends on her ability to ignore the audience watching — and she does so, making us feel as if we’re intruding on her memories rather than invited to listen to her reminisce.
La Vie En Rose created a new standard for music biopic in its innovative structure and phenomenal leading lady. No one who watches it will have any regrets.