Becoming singer Edith Piaf: A brilliant portrayal beyond acting

Posted: June 15, 2007

Most music biopics follow a familiar arc, and in some ways Olivier Dahan's La Vie en Rose appears no different: a childhood of pain and poverty, false steps and shaky beginnings, a mentor or two, wild times on the road, discovery, debauchery, success, fame, death.

But this brilliant account of the life of Edith Piaf - the French songbird, born of the streets and the brothels, who became a cultural icon for a nation - visits the usual benchmarks, juggles them around, emphasizes sharp detail over seismic events, and delivers the portrait of a life that is vividly, explosively real.

Populated with whores and boxers, thugs and impresarios, the low and the mighty, La Vie en Rose covers two World Wars and a whirlwind of history, zooming in on the big, doleful eyes - and big, beautiful voice - of the woman nicknamed "la môme," the kid, "the Little Sparrow."

As portrayed by Marion Cotillard, in a performance that has to be recognized when Oscar time rolls around, Piaf comes off as uniquely talented and tortured, a strong-willed woman whose rough childhood and impoverished early years forged a fiery soul - in the frailest and most abused (drugs, alcohol, you name it) of bodies.

Lip-synching (perfectly), Cotillard transforms herself from the plucky street crooner with the lesbian sidekick to a grande dame of the music world, and all phases between. She is, quite simply, amazing. The actress (A Good Year, A Very Long Engagement) brings new meaning to the word transformation: There isn't a second of screen time when you'll find yourself thinking that you're watching an actor at work. With Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, you are witnessing some kind of unexplainable, extraordinary inhabitation.

Filmmaker Dahan - heretofore known for a slick Luc Besson-produced thriller and a pretty good Isabelle Huppert drama, La Vie Promise - toggles around the decades, getting great supporting work from Sylvie Testud, Emmanuelle Seigner, Gerard Depardieu, Clotilde Courau, Jean-Pierre Martins (as Piaf's prizefighter lover, Marcel Cerdan) and a pair of magnetic kid actors who portray Piaf at the ages of 5 and 10. Jettisoning any sort of straightforward chronology, Dahan instead creates a timeline of emotional moments, of unimagined lows and highs, and of the supremely gifted, maddeningly difficult woman at its center.

For Piaf fans, La Vie en Rose is a must-see. For fans yet-to-be, Dahan and Cotillard's film is an opportunity rich with discovery.

La Vie en Rose **** (out of four stars)

Directed by Olivier Dahan, written by Isabelle Sobelman and Dahan, photography by Tetsuo Nagata, distributed by Picturehouse. In French with subtitles.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 mins.

Edith Piaf.................. Marion Cotillard

Momone. . . Sylvie Testud

Louis Barrier. . . Pascal Gregory

Louis Leplée......... Gerard Depardieu

Marcel Cerdan. . . Jean-Pierre Martins

Parent's guide: PG-13 (drugs, sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five and Showcase at Ritz Center/NJ

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or

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