In recent years, most film biographies have followed a fairly tried-and-true formula: begin with a brief look at the subject’s childhood, then jump ahead to when their life got interesting, chronicling the subject’s rise, fall and death. The past several years have seen award-winning depictions of the lives of mathematician John Nash, business mogul Howard Hughes, boxer James Braddock and musicians Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. The popularity of bio-pics has spread to Europe, prompting French filmmakers to tackle the life of famed singer Edith Piaf. In diverting from the familiar formula, though, the filmmakers have made La Vie en Rose much less than it could’ve been had they stuck to it.
Born in Paris in 1915 to a street singer and an acrobat, Piaf spends the better part of her childhood in a Normandy whorehouse run by her paternal grandmother. An eye infection causes her to lose her vision for a period of several years, until she regains it after visiting a statue of St. Therese de Lisieux. Following a time working as a street performer alongside her father, Piaf is discovered singing on a street corner by nightclub owner Louis Leplee. The rest, as they say, is history.
Despite having a tremendously interesting life–including being a beloved performer throughout much of the world and a torrid love affair with champion boxer Marcel Cerdan–La Vie en Rose falls short in its disorganized, scattershot presentation. Director Olivier Dahan’s approach is reminiscent of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 21 Grams, but the earlier film used disorganization to drive the narrative, rather than hinder it. Had Piaf’s life been presented in a linear manner, the film would have been much more compelling. Some story elements are mishandled, presenting Piaf’s relationships with Cerdan, mentor Raymond Atto and her two husbands in a disjointed, confusing manner. Some audience members may also be confounded by Cerdan’s nonchalant attitude about having a wife and kids while carrying on the affair. Whether co-writers Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman intended for Cerdan and Piaf to seem so callous is unclear.
Regardless of its illogical composition, the rest of the film is flawlessly presented. The life of Edith Piaf is showcased by utilizing recordings of Piaf entwined with the exceptional performance of Marion Cotillard and the flawless make-up work used to age her throughout the film. The result is a series of scenes that, while placed in a bizarre order, are tremendous dramatic pieces on their own.
Edith Piaf led a fascinating life and La Vie en Rose’s 140-minute runtime is filled to the brim with great performances. It’s a shame that audiences have to sit through the film’s patchwork editing abomination to experience them.