One of Edith Piaf’s signature songs was “Non, je ne regrette rien,” and discerning viewers worldwide are unlikely to regret buying a ticket to biopic “La Vie en rose.” Versatile, always spot-on thesp Marion Cotillard surpasses herself as the waiflike French songbird whose personal traumas fueled her art. Already presold to much of the planet, impressively mounted and involving pic should be greeted with applause in most markets after ringing up the curtain at the Berlin fest.
Director Olivier Dahan (“Dead Already,” 1998; “Crimson Rivers II,” 2004), who co-scripted with Isabelle Sobelman, weaves known incidents from Piaf’s personal and professional trajectory into a celluloid mosaic. Pic draws on old-fashioned show-must-go-on gumption, yet feels modern, not musty, in its approach. Recent biopic subjects Ray Charles and Johnny Cash packed setbacks and success into much longer careers; Piaf died in 1963, at age 47.
Younger auds, accustomed to flashy belting, may not immediately appreciate the gripping originality of Piaf’s delivery, but they should be able to relate to hard knocks, harder knocks, drug addiction, alcohol, lost love and the needy flip side of adulation when your inner child is scruffy and wounded. Piaf spent her formative years in a brothel, went blind for a while as a child, was suspected of having murdered the impresario who gave her her first professional break — and that’s just the tip of a juicy biographical iceberg.
Pic’s structure doesn’t so much bounce back and forth in time as flow in and out of settings and incidents in non-chronological order.
Action starts in New York on Feb. 16, 1959, in front of a chi-chi crowd. Piaf starts singing, in English, only to collapse. Next sequence opens in 1918 in Paris, where Edith’s mother, Anetta (Clotilde Courau), sings for the dirt-poor passers-by of the Belleville quarter.
Edith’s father, Louis (Jean-Paul Rouve), a contortionist, snatches his daughter from the grubby setting and deposits her with his mother, Louise (Catherine Allegret, eerily channeling her mother, Simone Signoret), a brothel keeper in Normandy. Pic then returns to New York, then back to Normandy in the teens — all in the first reel.
No artificial timeline is imposed on the proceedings, yet the portrait feels rich and rounded, looking back over the woman’s hurts and triumphs as she might have recalled them at the end of her intensely bittersweet life. Sweeping, slightly dreamlike result has plenty of forward momentum but also feels unhurried.
A whorehouse may be no place for a little girl, but it was there that Edith received the closest thing to actual mothering she would ever know. And young Edith is instilled with a lifelong taste for prayer by spunky, flame-haired Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner, wonderful), a church-going prostie and the script’s only invented character.
A wiry wisp of a woman who eventually loomed larger than life, Piaf was discovered on a street corner by Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu). Borderline geeky, she’s a vocal curiosity whose cabaret debut proves electric. But the streets continue to tug at the feisty-yet-tentative “little sparrow.” (“Piaf” is vintage Paris slang for the bird.)
Period re-creations feel just right: from impoverished Belleville, via the championship bout in ’40s New York by Piaf’s true love, boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), to mid-’50s California. But well-dressed sets and convincing costumes would have meant little without Cotillard’s bracing and affecting perf.
Cotillard nails the assignment, portraying Piaf at 20 to Piaf on her deathbed with a range of gestures, her trademark posture, and a core of eternal hurt melded with ferocious pride. She embodies Piaf’s raspy speaking voice, her imperious street-wise attitude, her simple joy at being lionized by other celebs, and the taste of artistic triumph mixed with the constant hum of genuine tragedy.
Casting is excellent across the board, with high marks for tykes Manon Chevallier and Pauline Burlet as the young Edith; Pascal Greggory as Piaf’s devoted, slightly lovesick manager; Rouve as her itinerant acrobat father; gruffly handsome Martins as Cerdan; Allegret, rock-solid as the brothel keeper; and Sylvie Testud as Edith’s guttersnipe drinking buddy, Momone.
Widescreen lensing is intelligent and communicative throughout. The eerily choreographed scene in which Piaf learns Cerdan will not be coming to join her is handled with baroque majesty.
Makeup and hair are both outstanding. By the end of her life, the real Piaf looked some 25 years older than she actually was, and Cotillard’s scrubbed good looks are transformed accordingly.
Music-hall numbers crackle with the charge of live performance. Interstitial score delicately incorporates melodies from Piaf standards without upstaging the action or diluting the power of the songs when married with their lyrics.