Edith Piaf lived fast and died young, but she didn’t exactly leave a good-looking corpse.
At 47, she looked closer to 67, her tiny body ravaged by the effects of longtime alcohol abuse, morphine addiction and, ultimately, cancer.
The fact that Marion Cotillard deeply immerses herself in the role as the doomed French songstress, making you forget that you’re watching a beautiful actress, is only part of what makes her performance in “La Vie en Rose” great.
Cotillard, who appeared opposite Russell Crowe in “A Good Year,” plays various stages of The Little Sparrow’s life — as a 19-year-old being discovered singing on street corners, as a mercurial star at the height of her powers, and as a frail, demanding shell of herself on her deathbed. It’s almost as if she’s been asked to play three different roles, all of which she accomplishes convincingly, and with striking intensity. (Two younger actresses, Manon Chevallier and Pauline Burlet, also play Piaf as a little girl.)
It’s the acting that elevates this story beyond its biopic trappings. Although director and co-writer Olivier Dahan tries to invigorate the genre by jumping around in time, the telling of this extraordinary life still seems a bit too familiar. It can be an intoxicating, dreamlike jumble, but at two hours and 20 minutes, the melodrama is also physically draining.
In recreating a famous person’s life, too often this kind of film feels like a greatest-hits collection of key events. With Piaf — or Johnny Cash or Ray Charles — that literally is the case.
There’s the first time she sings in public as a child, her street-performer father (Jean-Paul Rouve) prodding her to help him make money from a crowd that’s gathered. The moment when nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) hears her on the corner, recognizes her raw talent and puts her on his stage. (He also coined her nickname.)
There’s her first concert-hall performance. Her first world tour. The moment she collapses on stage in front of an audience in New York. And the moment she first hears what would become her defining, defiant anthem, “Non, je ne regrette rien,” or “I regret nothing.”
Dahan and co-writer Isabelle Sobelman also depict her traumatic, impoverished childhood — clearly they did their homework — which could have made for a fascinating film all its own. Left with her grandmother by her aspiring-singer mother (Clotilde Courau), young Edith is raised at a Normandy brothel, where she suffers temporary blindness. One of the prostitutes (Emmanuelle Seigner, whose character was concocted) becomes a de facto mother figure to her — until Edith is ripped from her arms, too, causing more insecurity and abandonment issues.
That pain would eventually come out in the form of the pure, passionate voice the world came to know and love as quintessentially French. Cotillard, her hairline shaved back and her eyebrows thinly penciled in, doesn’t try to mimic Piaf — she’s lip-synching, which was a smart move. No one could have matched Piaf’s power. But Cotillard does give us a sense of her volatility, her neediness, and her yearning to be loved. (This helps explains her visceral reaction to the plane-crash death of her great love, boxer Marcel Cerdan, played by Jean-Pierre Martins. Dahan goes a bit over the top at this point.)
So after all these highs and lows, all this skipping around across continents and through decades, do we understand what drove this famous figure any better than when we walked in? Not really. But we’ve witnessed one hell of a performance.