Astrophysicists tell us that every element in our solar system-gold, silver, carbon, etc.-is formed during the intense heat of supernovas. But these celestial explosions occur only when the stars burn very hot and, therefore, very fast. Such stars live short, intense, brilliant existences. They are magnificently radiant, but they are also destructive-and self-destructive. The elements that fly out from the deaths of these brief, turbulent stars are the building blocks of everything we know.
It might, therefore, take an astrophysicist, rather than a music historian, to best explain Edith Piaf, the passionate, talented and tormented French singer who, during the first half of the 20th century, rose from street child to, as one woman in La Vie En Rose puts it, "The soul of Paris."
La Vie En Rose is co-written and directed by Olivier Dahan, who, though no astrophysicist, possesses a disarmingly keen understanding of the internal and external forces that shaped Piaf's stardom. Dahan's portrait is by turns brutally frank and adoring; it melds biography, character study and even an occasional expressionistic flurry-as when the child Piaf communes with St. Therese while staring through a burst of flame into the night sky.
The need for expressionistic directorial chicanery is rare, for the performance of Marion Cotillard as Piaf is absolutely masterful. Cotillard channels the songstress' tempestuous mood swings with a brilliance that captivates and transports. Cotillard not only is Piaf; she is Piaf from her 20s until her death in her 40s, when she was prematurely stooped, quivering and looked twice her age.
Though La Vie En Rose rests on the shoulders of Cotillard, praise must be lavished equally on the scenic artists, costumers and make-up artists for their contributions to the beauty of the film and the effortless suspension of disbelief. The make-up artists make it as easy as possible for Cotillard, who is a fine-featured 31-year-old, to transition into Piaf at the end of her hard-lived life. The scenic artists and set-dressers are more varied in their approaches. For instance, a 1920s Parisian street scene is rendered with realistic detail and, in the next scene, a New York night shot is portrayed in the stylized look of 1950s noir.
But if the varied visual styles call some attention to themselves, Dahan's manipulation of sequence may be the most problematic aspect of La Vie En Rose. By jumping haphazardly from childhood to near-death, from stage collapse to standing ovation, from brothel to penthouse and then back all over again, some of the emotional juice gets spilled and lost along the way. Moreover, hopping between tough childhoods and brilliant artistic adulthoods is fast becoming cliché in biopics.
If the procedure is well-worn, it's for a reason. What is lost in emotional resonance by forgoing the steady unfolding of a life is outweighed by the connections drawn between formative events and adult dispositions.
For Piaf, those connections are all too clear and all too commonplace. A fear of abandonment and loneliness forged of a chaotic childhood where people couldn't be counted on; self-medication as a learned habit from alcoholic parents; a sense of self-worth dependent on the opinions of others; born of elders who praised and demeaned, but did not love.
Piaf's voice was from natural-born talent and hard work in equal measure. But, importantly, it was there, and it shaped her life as much as any of those points on her résumé of suffering. It was the voice that made her the brilliantly shining star; the suffering that made her burn through her own fuel fast and violently, and ultimately implode. And like Kurt Cobain, John Belushi, Janis Joplin and too many others, we are left to pick up the elements forged during a fiercely burning life and reconstruct our universe again.
LA VIE EN ROSE
Directed by Olivier Dahan
Written by Olivier Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman
With Marion Cotillard, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Gerard Depardieu and Pauline Burlet
140 min., PG-13