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The extraordinary life of Edith Piaf
I'm not sure if this tagline is remarkably true or cruelly false. Edith Piaf was an incredible singer, and her career was something of a miracle considering the life she was leading at the time, but I think her actual life is more of a tragedy than something to be celebrated. Still, fans of the singer (and many others) will be bowled over by this heartfelt exploration of a singer's struggles.
Facts of the Case
La Vie En Rose tells the tale of Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard, A Very Long Engagement), the "voice of Paris" who rose from the streets to become a French singing superstar. Oliver Dahan tells the story of Piaf's rise to fame against near-impossible conditions, while simultaneously telling the story of her disease and lifestyle imposed downfall.
It's confession time. Although I had heard the name Edith Piaf before sitting down to watch lvm, I knew almost nothing about her. Now that I have seen this film, I feel like I know everything about her, and that's an impressive accomplishment in itself. Biopics are, of course, a dangerous thing when telling the story of a struggling drug-addicted celebrity. After all, Dahan obviously has great affection for Piaf (like the rest of the French population), but must also be honest in his telling of her life. The balance between these two elements is a difficult one, and he has done a fabulous job.
Indeed, it's not hard to evoke pathos with the story of Piaf's childhood. Raised by prostitutes and street performers, Piaf had a very tough go from the beginning. This childhood is delivered with painful believability here, to the point that it's almost impossible to believe that all of this could have happened to one person. That Piaf simply survived to her adult years is a miracle. These early scenes prove crucial, though, because that pain must be established for us to forgive her the zany behavior that punctuated her adult life. She was a difficult person to deal with, and made many bad decisions—many involving alcohol and drugs.
As we watch, we begin to realize that Piaf's horrible childhood and exhausting lifestyle are what made her such a successful singer. Her upbringing gave her a vicious edge that set her apart from the prim and proper performers of the time. Her voice had power, but it also had a playful, vicious coldness that came out of the self-imposed suffering. For us to embrace Piaf is to embrace those sides of her as well, to accept that pain can be turned into beautiful art. Does this make us complicit in the suffering she experienced? Do we allow our celebrities to destroy themselves because we love the products that this destruction leads to? Surely, fans of Piaf will find this a challenging film to watch in more ways than one.
Most of the attention to La Vie En Rose has been directed at Cotillard's performance as Piaf. There's an excellent reason for that. It truly is one of the most impressive performances I've ever seen, and from the little bit I've watched, I'm not sure I could tell the difference between Piaf and Cotillard's performance. Never once could I tell that I was watching lip synching during the music, and the whole thing was filmed so naturally that it's easy not to think of it as a movie at all. Even the greatest Piaf fans will have nothing to complain about this portrayal.
They also have no reason to complain about this transfer. HBO has done a fine job, leaving no indication that it was brought in from France (deep in the land of PAL). Color saturation and detail are both excellent, and I noticed no interlacing or artifact errors. The black level is strong too, making the film a consistent joy to watch. The sound is also excellent, with exceptionally clear music (probably the most important thing in this case). The dialogue is always easy to understand as well, though. The only extra on the disc is a brief production featurette about Cotillard's performance. This is probably the most important aspect of the film to focus on, though I would have liked to get a bit more context about Piaf.
Of course, La Vie En Rose probably has a limited audience in North America. We don't have the same rich connection to Piaf that the French do, though the film will have interest for many other people as well. It's a fascinating portrait of a troubled life—a true examination of the work, triumph, and pain of a remarkable artist. It features a truly spectacular performance, and is sure to delight fans of Piaf's work.
Few people would convict Piaf after all she's been through—and I'm not one of them.
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Scales of Justice
• Stepping into Character Featurette
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