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Sparrow in flight

Marion Cotillard astonishes as Edith Piaf in `La Vie en Rose.'

June 08, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

A dreamlike, impressionistic biography of the singer affectionately known as "The Little Sparrow," "La Vie en Rose" flutters around the various stages of French national icon Edith Piaf's eventful life, randomly alighting on the key, often tragic moments (nobody ever went to see an artist's biopic for uplift) that shaped her.

Young French actress Marion Cotillard ("A Very Long Engagement," "A Good Year") is astonishing as the troubled singer, whom she portrays from her late teens to her death at a ravaged 47, in a technically virtuosic and emotionally resonant performance that elevates the material from a somewhat episodic melodrama into something strange and riveting. Disappearing completely into the role, she travels between emotional extremes that today would come each with its own psychiatric treatment and corresponding pill. Alternately raging, showboating, withdrawing and falling apart, Cotillard's Piaf has nary a dull psychological moment.

Writer-director Olivier Dahan begins his film during the singer's final days, when, weakened by a long illness and the long-term effects of a morphine addiction, she convalesces in her home in the South of France. This conceit allows Dahan to frame the events of her life as the jumbled reminiscences of a woman in her final days. The film's look, along with its free-associative, anachronous structure, lend it a feverish, dreamlike quality. And indeed Piaf's life was so strange, so sad and so extraordinary that it may as well have been a figment of an overheated imagination.

Atmospheric cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata and expressionistic production design by Olivier Raoux render Piaf's memories of bohemian Paris through the wars and swanky postwar New York in a romantic, heightened style -- circuses and cabarets giving way to satin and skyscrapers. Cotillard is so eerily adept at impersonating Piaf's odd, almost clownish mannerisms and cartoon character speaking voice that it's hard not to wonder at times if the portrayal isn't bordering on parody. The problem may be contextual -- it's nearly impossible in this day and age, when stars are manufactured from next to nothing and talent plays very little part in the success of a young female recording artist, to observe le tout Paris fall instantly in love with a tiny girl (4'8") who looks like a monkey and talks like an animated Walt Disney rodent and buy it. Then again, it adds to the air of nostalgia -- would that this sort of thing were still possible.

The film opens in 1959, only four years before Piaf's death, as she collapses onstage at the Olympia. From there it flashes back to her hardscrabble, sickly and all-around miserable childhood. The daughter of a failed cabaret singer and an acrobat-contortionist, Edith Gassion was abandoned by her mother at an early age, while her father was off fighting the war. She was later taken to live in her paternal grandmother's brothel in Normandy, where she was looked after by a loving but tormented prostitute named Titine (Emmanuelle Seigneur), who cared for her during a temporary blindness due to conjunctivitis and nurtured her devotion to the saint Therese de Lisieux.

After her father's return, Edith spent the next several years traveling with the circus and performing on the streets. It was on the streets of Paris that a teenage Edith was discovered by Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), the owner of a popular nightclub, who christened her "La Mome Piaf" (the Kid Sparrow) and launched her career. Soon, the erstwhile street urchin was befriending art world luminaries and conquering New York, where she met and fell in love with the married middle-weight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), who would become the love of her life.

Like many biopics that span entire lifetimes, even those as short as Piaf's, "La Vie en Rose" suffers from trying to cover too much territory in too little time, and what we get is a rough sketch of a remarkably eventful and improbable life that packed enough excitement and misfortune for several. Though her popularity never waned, Piaf's adult life was marked by tragedy. But her relentlessly accruing misfortunes underscore the poignancy and raw emotion of her vocalization, which the film luxuriates in, happily, sans regrets.

"La Vie en Rose." MPAA rating: PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. In limited release.

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