Reviewed by Diane Spodarek

La vie en rose recalls France’s most well-known nightclub singer, Edith Piaf, the Little Sparrow. Piaf was only forty-seven years old when she died in 1963. Marian Cotillard, a beautiful and versatile actor captures Piaf’s genius, gestures and her drugged and drunken life. Olivier Dahan writes and directs, matching the unique sound of Piaf’s voice with brilliant cinematography lush with detail and colors that make you feel as if you are plunged into a deep womb. The film is beautiful, a sensory experience about love and music that arouses laughter and tears.

Marian Cotillard embodies Piaf as a drunken teen waif on the streets in the slums of Paris and transforms her into an elegant torch singer and finally into a dismal balding addict who chooses morphine and booze to life despite claiming she must ‘sing to live’. Singing and performing as well as the booze and drugs are as much a part of who Piaf was as was her need to breathe.

Dahan creates period landscapes in France from the early 1900’s to the mid 1960’s with the grace of a fine musician. Whether shot in or outdoors each scene is rich in authenticity of time and place. The film’s title, La vie en rose, is the song Piaf is most known for; but, “No Regrets” (“Non je ne regrette rien”) was also embraced fully by Piaf. Dahan selected this song and the moment when Piaf first hears it as pivotal to Piaf’s choices to continue to self-destruct. And, it is heart breaking. In a scene where all her assistants are pushing and prodding her to do this and that, an unknown composer begs to play a song on her piano that he has written just for her. Giving him a chance Piaf listens to “No Regrets” and screams: I must sing this song, it is my life.

Piaf became ill from what is commonly referred to today as “lifestyle”. She believed that if she could just sing, she would get well. She didn’t. Her morphine use, as one doctor told her, was the highest he had ever encountered. Piaf was a small woman. She weighed about 90 pounds and was less than five feet tall. Her daily morphine use was enough for a party.

“The Little Sparrow” was the name given to Piaf by Louis Leplee, a gay nightclub owner, played by Gerard Depardieu who never seems to age or change in his brilliance in all his outsider roles. Leplee discovered Piaf singing in the street. He took her out of the gutter and introduced her to a captive audience; glamour and success followed. Louis Leplee was murdered. In the film, it is not clear why he was killed, or who killed him, or why friends of Leplee blamed Piaf. Perhaps my confusion was the result of faulty hard-to-read subtitles, which were occasionally cut-off at the bottom of the screen.

If she had survived Piaf would be 92 today. I mention this because I saw La Vie en Rose with my father, who is 85, while I was visiting family in Canada. Watching an artist from my father’s generation, with all my senses highly aroused, I was aware of how my experience was affected by sitting next to my dad in a dark room. I was nervous about a possible sex scene, but there were no cheap shots by Dahan. He understands his responsibility in creating a biography and portrays Piaf’s love for music, despite her addictions, with a deep reverence for Edith’s life. It is her voice that carries the film, but it is the Dahan who takes us into Piaf’s soul.

A Google of Edith Piaf reveals a clip of her singing her signature song in 1954. And there are others. Celine Dion singing “La vie en rose” in her French Canadian accent, without any emotion whatsoever, is like watching a cross-dressing straight man impersonate Judy Garland at a Karaoke Bar. A better bet is to click on Grace Jones singing a Piaf song with one bare breast and a flower in her ear, gyrating on the floor in a cloud of smoke.

If you don’t already enjoy Piaf, seeing La vie en rose will turn you into a fan of the real thing.

Diane Spodarek is a writer and performer. See her blog at dangerousdiane.

» Olivier Dahan | France/UK/Czech Republic | 2007 | 140 min | Featuring: Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner Jean-Paul Rouve, Gérard Depardieu. In French with English subtitles. IN THEATRES NOW.