Friday, 13 July 2007

La vie en Rose (La mome) (2007)

Happy new year!

I doubt most people would be familiar with the name of Edith Piaf. Mention "La vie en rose" to an average passerby in the street and all you'd get is a look of incomprehension or confusion. And yet Edith Piaf remains one of the most captivating singers of the last century, whose voice captivated millions, whose music has endured beyond her death, and there's something about her hard-living ways and her tragic life that makes her brittle singing so much more alluring, her public memory so much more precious. Larger than life (with such a talent, she'd have to be a diva!), Edith Piaf deserves to be the subject of a biopic.

Now, faced with a personage like Edith Piaf, director Oliver Dahan has made the choice to film the biopic of the legend, as opposed to the biopic of the person. What this means is you won't get a Great Person Biopic (think Ben Kingsley's Gandhi), but a more impressionistic, bravura retelling of the life a larger than life character who is by now a legendary figure. As such, La vie en rose does not take the expected biopic step of demystifying the legend behind the figure or to put a more human face on Edith Piaf so that audiences can relate to her as a normal person. Perhaps it's because there are no reliable accounts of the singer's early life, or that Mme Piaf's childhood has been shrouded in mystery and embellished in various versions by herself over the years. And perhaps it's because the Edith Piaf who became a public figure and professional singer since the age of 15 really did live life in a larger than life manner, drinking, wooing, and singing in an excess that would shorten her life and age her prematurely, but strangely also make her singing even more irresistible at the same time. Here is the woman who really did live and die for her art, the original diva and artist type whose private life and public music straddled the boundaries between the vulgar and the beautiful - how else can you tell her story?

What makes La vie en rose very much watchable is its stream of consciousness editing and non-linear approach to telling Edith Piaf's story. The movie intercuts freely between her childhood, early years as a performer in Parisian cabarets, her later tours in America and her final years, but where it would normally throw any audience off, the strong editing and musical interludes linking various time periods help create a coherent mood. It's so well done that by the end of the movie, you can't help but want to cheer the frail old hunched-over lady on as she struggles to sing her closing number. I can't imagine this movie being told linearly - Mme Piaf's life story would then look like several long stretches of soul-sucking misery, illuminated by brief, blinding glimpses of hard-living and intoxicating happiness - such a story might be unpalatable for most.

As far as musicals go, La vie en rose is creatively filmed, with very few static, stagey angles. Marion Cotllilard does an impressive impression of Edith Piaf, which is augmented by the director's decision to have the actress lip-synch to the vocals of Edith Piaf heself, digitally restored from her old recordings. A constant sore point I have with this film, though, is the decision by its distributors not to subtitle most of the songs performed here - and when they do, they have taken an odd decision to water down the translations - Piaf's songs were well-known for their strong use of language. This is unfortunate - a whole new generation of fans could have been nurtured if the distributors had made the right decision.

La vie en rose deserves to be watched, despite its minor flaws. Like Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea, it is an utterly unconventional telling of the life of an utterly unconventional, strong-willed but physically fragile individual who went down not without a fight. La vie en rose is the definitive biopic of the life of Edith Piaf, until the day when a director decides to adopt the playful and postmodern approach from Beyond the Sea to tell the story of Edith Piaf.

First published at incinemas on 26 July 2007

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