La Vie en Rose, the new French film about the tormented life of the singer Edith Piaf, is, in many respects, a well-crafted film, a complex, resonant story, whose multilayered structure — delivered in a series of flashbacks — gives a sense of Piaf’s short, troubled life. With a title borrowed from one of Piaf’s most famous songs, the film contains memorable acting and a stirring set of vocal performances. At the same time, the film, from writer-director Olivier Dahan, overdoes its artistry to the point of pretentiousness, wallows in the degrading events of Piaf’s life, and is ultimately unconvincing in its attempt to transmute life into art, to justify Piaf’s miserable, brash, and cruel life by reference to her artistic work.
The depiction of Piaf’s life is an impressive team effort. Marie Cotillard gives a spirited performance as the adult and rapidly aging Piaf; child actresses (Manon Chevallier and Pauline Burlet) offer equally strong performances as the young Edith; the fine background score from Christopher Gunning matches nicely the superb solo performances for which Jil Aigrot supplies Piaf’s vocals. The film starts out late in her life, as she collapses onstage in New York, and then flashes back to her childhood in Paris. It would be hard to imagine a more neglected youth, a life that almost makes Judy Garland’s seem normal. As a girl, Edith was abandoned by her drunken, singer mother and then left by her father with his mother, at her brothel, where one of the prostitutes, Titine (Emmanuelle Seinger) raises Edith, even cares for her during a period of blindness, until her father retrieves her. The scenes of Edith’s rough, early life are rich in period detail. They also contain jarring scenes, as, for example, when the innocent Edith wanders through a freak show of sexual activity in the brothel. Edith’s talent emerges by accident; as her father’s street performance flounders, he shouts at her, “Do something.” Edith sings a moving rendition of “La Marseilles.”
Accustomed to life on the streets and to a world where providing immediate pleasure to an audience earns money for food, short-term rent, and enough alcohol to induce momentary amnesia, Edith, despite her talent, lacks ambition. She is eventually discovered by Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who gives her the name “Piaf,” the Little Sparrow, and puts her onstage.
It’s difficult to keep up with all the bad twists in her life: abandonment by one and then another parent; the childhood in a brothel; blindness; homelessness, with street performances for money and food; failed romantic relationships; alcohol and drug addiction; injuries from a horrific car accident; and public scandal over the rumored involvement of her business cronies in the brutal murder of Leplee.
The film has a sort of zig-zag structure as it moves, almost at random, back and forth between early, middle, and late periods in her life. Initially this has the impact of deepening our sense of how much happened to Edith in a very short time. But recourse to the shifting of temporal sequence is inordinate, bewildering, and exhausting, especially as the film drags on well over two hours and teases us with apparent endings any number of times. The screen goes dark and one expects credits to roll, but then we are cast back in time to some other degrading experience that Edith undergoes herself or inflicts on others.
The film is so intent on compounding the doom and gloom of Piaf’s life that it omits scenes from her life that might have made her seem noble. The war scenes, for example, leave out any indication of the assistance she provided to the French resistance in World War II. Early on, the film gives the impression that the trajectory of Edith’s life might be one of redemption from deprivation and depravity. In the opening scene in which Edith collapses onstage, she invokes the intercession of St. Therese, who plays a prominent role in the first half of the film. Edith credits St. Therese with her recovery from blindness. Then, the film depicts Edith as having a sort of vision of St. Therese, who promises always to look out for her. Therese simply disappears by the end, although Edith retains a superstitious attachment to a cross necklace without which she refuses to go on stage. Given the series of horrific events that constitute Piaf’s biography, rather than as the blessings of a guardian angel, any other-worldly intervention would have to be viewed as an intrusive curse. Besides, it is not any sort of providential order that the film wants to praise, but Piaf’s own indomitable will.
“The intellect of man is forced to choose,” the poet Yeats wrote, “perfection of the life, or of the work.” For Piaf, there was no option; her life was stolen from her even before it began. In a particularly painful scene, Edith is confronted in a bar by her own drunken, homeless mother, who begs Edith for money. Edith curses her, demands that she be removed from the bar, and taunts her by saying she is the artist her mother could only dream of becoming.
In an interview with an American reporter held late in her life, she repeatedly answers “love” to the question what advice she would give to others, performers, children and so forth. It is hard, however, to see how love could be the lesson of her life. Great passion, certainly, for music, for her few close friends, and for whatever she happens to want when she wants it. Her life is characterized by narcissism to the point of megalomania. In a rare instance that an assistant informs her that she simply cannot do something, she responds grandly, “well, then what’s the point of being Edith Piaf?”
Part of the brilliance of Cotillard’s performance, with help from makeup artists Didier Lavergne and Loulia Sheppard, is her ability to depict the vibrant 20-something Edith and the horribly aged and physically feeble 40-something Edith. Even in her depleted state, Edith manages nonetheless to overcome her infirmities to perform a rousing rendition of a song she says defines her, “Non je ne regrette rien” (“No, I regret nothing”).
There is in Piaf’s song and life something of a Nietzschean affirmation of the whole of existence or at least of one’s own portion of existence, an affirmation of the whole, both good and evil, beautiful and ugly. The act of creative will by pain, suffering, and even wickedness is transformed or sublimated into art has often been praised, at least by artists themselves. One can certainly appreciate Edith’s artistic ability and her refusal to be held back by external or internal obstacles.
Yet, Edith’s “Non je ne regrette rien” is not so much a conscious embrace of the past as it is a willing oblivion of it. And that rings hollow, particularly because the past, a mixture of violent abuse by others and self-destructive choices, has already deprived her of any future. In the absence of moral accountability or religious conversion, all that remains is transformation through art — a position the filmmakers seem to share with Edith. For all its power to produce moments of transcendence, art is incapable of redeeming such a regrettable life. To fall prey to such an illusion is to repeat one of Edith’s most tragic, if understandable, errors. It is an illusion, alas, to which our most sophisticated modern artists are especially prone. – Thomas Hibbs is the author of Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption, forthcoming from Spence Publishing.