Vie en Rose

July, 2007, Drama

Italians are well known for their mercurial emotional outbursts and Brits for self-deprecating humor and gift for understatement, but what country can match the Gallic capacity for morose cynicism? Life ultimately is merde the French imply, to be dealt with by a shrug of the shoulders, a gimlet-eyed suspicion of anything that appears remotely upbeat and a tendency to mistake what’s merely mawkish for the legitimately tragic. This musical biography of Edith Piaf insists that the life of the famous street urchin with a pixie-ish physique and the voice of an operatic soprano was the stuff of great tragedy, but despite a compelling turn by Marion Cotillard as the chanteuse and Piaf’s mesmerizing voice on the soundtrack, Rose sinks under the weight of its own overwrought pretensions. 

Director Oliver Dahan, (a classically-trained painter whose previous work includes a number of music videos) co-wrote the script for this film, which begins with the delivery of two-year old Edith to her fraternal grandmother, employed as a cook in a Normandy brothel during WW I. The facts of Piaf’s hardscrabble life as a street singer, her early cabaret success and her relationships with the men who influenced her career and alternately aided and abetted her prodigious appetite for booze and drugs are presented with what appears to be a maniacal desire to confuse the audience; I can’t remember seeing another film employing a non-linear storyline that’s as deliberately confusing as this one. Rose careens from early deprivation to extravagant success to grimly foreshadowed denouement and back again so often the movie seems to be oscillating like an electric fan, introducing characters who quickly disappear only to reappear again without explanation. Dahan apparently believes his viewers are intimately knowledgeable about his subject; the teenage marriage, motherhood and the death of her only daughter two years later, close friendships with Parisian gangsters, her multiple physical ailments etc., but even making that assumption doesn’t justify the discontinuity Dahan employs in seeking to both explain and justify the impulses of this brilliantly talented but self-destructive diva. Brittany, Paris and Lindsay - - be forewarned; you too can wind up broke, lonely and dead by your late 40’s - - and the three of you combined don’t have a fraction of the talent Piaf had…

Ms. Cotillard is a thirty-ish French actress with an extensive list of credits, but Dahan requires that she play Piaf as though he’s recreating Fay Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest; there’s so much scenery chewing going on here the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or cringe. The scene in which Piaf learns of her pugilist lover’s death in a plane crash promises to become an instant camp classic; overwrought, overripe and over done.  (Cotillard careens through the endless rooms of her lushly furnished apartment, screaming at the members of her retinue while pulling at her hair, insisting that someone has taken a watch she purchased for him as a gift.) 

Dahan apparently feels that his subject’s brief and chaotic career presents an example of an existential life well lived; full of excess perhaps, but defiantly lived in accordance with Piaf’s talents and appetites. Yet the film’s climatic presentation of the singer’s signature ballad, “Non, je ne regrette rein” comes off as pompously self-aggrandizing, anticipating the smug self-absorption of Sinatra’s “My Way”. Since when has self-justification become a virtue worthy of celluloid commeration?

Rose benefits from fine production values; lavish set design, superb costuming and crisp cinematography combine to give the film a highly polished effect. The supporting cast adds quiet authenticity to Piaf’s peripatetic career, but even the magisterial quality of her oft-employed singing voice on the soundtrack can’t offset Dahan’s heavy-handed direction and the bathos he employs in telling the singer’s story. 

The verdict? Even a woman possessed of Piaf’s atavistic egotism deserves better than this.    

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