Biography of French singer Edith Piaf (Cotillard). Neglected by her mother, Edith is brought up by her grandmother and then by her father, a travelling acrobat. The street singer is discovered and rises to fame, determined to work even when dying.
French beauty Marion Cotillard adopts a waddle and a throaty drawl for this biopic of eccentric singer Edith Piaf, who apparently had a life packed with more scandal and incident than a hundred Rays or Walk The Lines, even if some of the beats — impoverished childhood, drug addiction — sound familiar. The settings are certainly colourful: she grows up in a whorehouse and a circus. As Piaf seeks her fortune, the scene shifts to the smoky bars of 1930s Paris, where she hits the big time and the bottle (she’s barely shown sober from this point on).
Sex, drugs and booze make for plenty of drama as Piaf’s over-indulgence raises eyebrows and causes conflict with friends and associates. It’s also refreshing to see a physically awkward heroine whose path to success is peppered with both tragedy and faux pas: this is no wish-fulfilment drama. And Cotillard puts in a passionate performance, stooping and squashing her face into an impressively faithful take on Piaf that is utterly lacking in vanity.
Structurally, though, La Vie En Rose has almost as many problems as the troubled singer. Scenes of her youth are broken up by deathbed moments set decades later, which may provide an insight into her stubborn character, but are an unwelcome interruption. It’s harder to fully empathise with the hopes and dreams of the young Piaf when you’re frequently reminded of the wizened, drug-addled woman she became. And for some reason, one crucial chapter of her youth is revealed only in flashback at the very end.
There’s also little sense of Piaf’s relationship with her music, other than her insistence that she must sing at all costs. Some perfunctory explanations of her influences are given: scenes of her mother singing; sessions with a tutor/mentor who teaches her to enunciate and gesticulate, but these feel pointed and distant from the character herself. Fans of her music, though, can seek comfort in the Piaf-heavy soundtrack and the performance scenes.
La Vie En Rose presents a Piaf that is fascinating, but hard to relate to. Far from being an everywoman, she is difficult, extraordinary and tragic, and the film’s flashback-heavy structure is so full of incident that it leaves little room for insight into her complex character.
A far-from-rosy life story makes this lengthy biopic entertaining, but despite a strong lead performance it fails to get under Piafs skin.