La Vie En Rose—or as it's known in France, La Môme—lushly evokes the life and career of internationally successful chanteuse Edith Piaf. Even in squalor, Olivier Dahan's big-scale bio-epic is lush, all a part of emphasizing (as if it needs to be emphasized) Piaf's musical martyrdom. Though it's one wrenching moment after another, they're mitigated by music. When the film opens with the song "Heaven Have a Mercy," audience should get an idea of what they're in for: Piaf's "lung power" and unrelenting personal trials.
Dahan's treatment of Piaf (co-written by Isabelle Sobelman) is almost guaranteed to madden both those who know every detail of Piaf's life and those who know nothing about her. Absent are any mentions of her substantial role in the French Resistance or her discovery of Yves Montand, and characters routinely appear and disappear with not so much as an expository explanation. We do get Marlene Dietrich, like Orson Welles in Ed Wood, floating through to tell Piaf, "Your voice is the soul of Paris," and at one point, Dahan even throws in a spirit watching over Piaf.
The sticking point for Piaf neophytes is Dahan's flashback-flashforward structure, which is either artful or a desperate attempt to "find" the film in the editing room. It's needlessly complicated but not entirely chaotic, and Dahan attempts to suggest, in the late going, a method to the narrative madness: what we see may be her life as remembered from her deathbed. The technique is poetically fragmentary, as when Piaf, learning of a lover's death, stumbles from her hotel suite onto a concert-hall stage, once more to pour her heart out. In this torrid story, each scene is an art song of misery. (As for the vocals heard in the film, they're often Piaf but sometimes soundalike Jil Aigrot, in the interest of sound quality.)
After a while immersed in the 140-minute film, one may feel in the midst of one of Piaf's own clouded head trips, brought on by a combination of illness, grief, and substances. In a striking, strident turn, Marion Cotillard takes the tack that Piaf was larger than life, so the actress' performance must be equally risky. Cotillard portrays Piaf as mercurial and reckless, but one who wields her ego in ways that are keenly productive. When told, "You can't do this," she responds, "I can't? Then what's the point of being Edith Piaf?" Touché. A doctor tells her, "You're playing with your life." "You have to play with something," she answers. The hugely ambitious Dahan evidently sees a soul mate in his subject.
There's some magnificent Steadicam work (as when Piaf discovers a body), tasteful use of special effects to fill in period settings, and plenty of intriguing cinematic staging. Dahan plays Piaf's concert-hall debut silent, a counter-intuitive but powerful choice. In the final equation, Dahan deserves the benefit of the doubt for his often stunningly realized film, which is more a visual-aural poem about Piaf than a definitive bio-epic of Piaf's complex life story. Cotillard as Piaf and the music of the "little sparrow" are reasons enough to see La Vie En Rose.