La Vie en Rose (La Mome)
directed by Olivier Dahan
(Picturehouse, 2007)

There are some performers who are so searingly identified with a song, with an era, always identified with the same image or two, that casual fans and even aficionados may feel certain that what they know is true.

The arched, thin brows of Edith Piaf, her brilliantly painted lips and the gritty pain of her voice are like that -- so easily caricatured that after hearing "Non, je ne regrette rien," a Francophile can answer "Piaf" without even knowing how the melody goes or what the words mean.

La Mome, released in the States as La Vie en Rose -- another Piaf standard -- is one fan's look, in this case director Olivier Dahan's take, on the life of the iconic French performer. Also a painter and video director, it's little wonder Dahan is fascinated by "The Little Sparrow," as Piaf was billed. Her life, and how it intertwined with her onstage persona, are impossible to resist.

Piaf's early years were harrowing. Raised in poverty and abandoned first by her mother and then her father, Piaf lived for a time with her paternal grandmother -- who was employed by a brothel -- married in her mid-teens and had a daughter who died before age 2 of meningitis. On her own from her mid-teens onward, Piaf was discovered singing on the streets by a legendary club owner, and stardom followed.

But, as with so many other people fighting to keep her demons at bay, Piaf was her own savior and her own downfall. Disastrous relationships, medical addiction after a car accident and a lifetime of frail health exacerbated by constant work wore Piaf down. She died of liver cancer, at 47, in 1963.

It's an unrelenting story, and Dahan, who wrote the script with Isabelle Sobelman, does little to lighten the load that his Piaf, actor Marion Cotillard, must carry.

And what Cotillard does with this opportunity is astonishing. She has said in interviews that the last thing she wanted to do was an imitation of Piaf but, instead, to capture the singer's life as a tribute. A noble idea, but hard to do when the person you're portraying lived her public life as if she were always onstage.

Cotillard turned to the movies Piaf made, to the performances caught on film, and what she came away with is searing to watch. As Dahan bounces back and forth from the stage to childhood to old age -- if 47 can be said to be old -- he and Cotillard make the case that Piaf's strength and weakness were inseparable. Her firsthand knowledge of suffering imbued her art, and her art helped carry her, often stumbling, through the suffering.

Not always easy to watch, but impossible to turn off, La Vie en Rose probably takes a little license with the truth. But Piaf herself apparently was known for taking charge of her own story. Thanks to Cotillard and a fantastic supporting cast, Dahan's is a worthy tribute.

review by
Jen Kopf

27 September 2008

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