Friday, July 25, 2008

#25: La Vie En Rose


La Vie En Rose
Directed by Olivier Dahan
Written by Olivier Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman
Released October 14, 2005

When it comes to biopics, the success of the movie as a whole is secondary to the performance on which the film revolves. Regardless of whether all the other pieces are in place, if there's no performance there, the rest won't matter. Other movies can get away with having a shit acting job here or there; in the biopic, if your lead drops the ball, the film is in ruins.

La Vie En Rose, which details the rise and demise of legendary French singer/actress Edith Piaf, could have been shot with cardboard props and a handheld video camera, recorded to VHS tape, with a lobotomized editor, and it still would have been virtually bullet proof. That's because Marion Cotillard gives one of the most absolutely mesmerizing, unbelievable and transformative performances in the history of cinema.

I know there's going to be a good deal of hyperbole on this site over the next year, but mark my words: Cotillard's is hands down a performance for the ages. It should be pored over and taught in acting schools. She makes the work of portraying a woman whose physical decay (at the hands of a brutal car accident at a young age, heroin addiction and cancer) came so quickly look easy. While Piaf died young, she left behind a body that looked and behaved like one twice its age. Cotillard will make you think that they've switched actresses on you.

Come to think of it, this movie should also be taught in... well, whatever school where make-up artists learn their trade. So often in these biopics that span decades of a person's life, the make-up as that character ages becomes more and more comical. I almost feel that the credit for Cotillard's amazing work should be shared equally with her make-up artists, Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald (all three earned Oscars for their work).

The rest of the movie is good, but not great. I had problems with the way the story jumps constantly between the years of Piaf's life, because knowing her fate in a way numbed the effect of presentation of the highs and lows, tragedies and accomplishments. A little goes a long way with that type of storytelling, so the timeline jumping is unnecessarily confusing.

There are a number of beautifully filmed scenes, and an especially emotional and technically impressive 5 minute single camera tracking shot where Cotillard and director Olivier Dahan collaborate to essentially deliver every human emotion in the matter of one scene.

But, like I said, the filmmaking is secondary to the performance. Everything else is just the sugar on top. You don't even need to be a fan of Piaf, or have even heard her music, to care about this "character." By the time the credits roll, you will be hunting for the soundtrack.

(I should also recommend, if you have the time, watching the film a second time with the subtitles turned off, as I did. Once you've read all the dialogue and know the essence of what is going on in all of the scenes, you owe it to yourself and Cotillard to watch it again, unencumbered by the need to constantly glance down at the bottom of your screen. I know it might sound silly, but you will really appreciate all of the nuances to this performance on that second viewing.)

For more on La Vie En Rose:
- More on the movie at
- More information about Edith Piaf at Wikipedia. Plus, more history here and here.

Here's a 1954 Piaf performance of "La Vie En Rose":

... and a side-by-side comparison of Piaf and Cotillard:

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