It’s clear that people are beginning to get sick of musical biopics, and for somewhat legitimate reasons. Ray and Walk the Line were both formulaic and predictable, but frankly I thought they were fairly well made, they weren’t revolutionary but they worked. However, people are tired of them and there are three projects this year trying to go new directions with this genre. The most high profile of these is probably the broad spoof Walk Hard with John C. Reilly playing the fictional musical legend Dewey Cox. The next highest profile of these projects is I’m Not There with six actors including Cate Blanchet playing Bob Dylan. I’ve yet to see either of these projects, but I can only hope that they will fare better than the third of these projects: the long, boring, and nearly incoherent Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose.
I’ll admit that before I heard about this film I had no idea that a singer named Edith Piaf had ever existed. This didn’t help my viewing of the film as director Olivier Dahan has decided to structure this film with a constantly shifting chronology that shifts between different eras in Piaf’s life with seemingly no rhyme or reason. This decision isn’t entirely disorienting, I could sort of follow what’s going on, but it did really feel like an unnecessary burden for someone unfamiliar with the subject. The lack of chronology wouldn’t have been as big a problem if there weren’t large gaps in this mixed up timeline. The disease that eventually takes Piaf’s life is Liver cancer, but it would have been nice if the film had bothered to inform me of this, I had to look it up on Wikipedia. Admittedly, if this had been about a performer I had a better grasp on than Piaf I may not have had such a problem, but I don’t think it’s fair for a filmmaker to expect extensive pre-knowledge from his audience.
I would be more willing to overlook the disorientation that resulted from the film’s chronology if I thought there was some compelling reason for this aspect in the first place. This shifting timeline only seems to have been added to hide the fact that, deep down, this film is just as clichéd as Hollywood fare like Walk the Line. Edith falls victim to all the usual “Behind the Music” problems like addictions, tragic relationships, and attempts to perform in the wake of failing health. Dahan seems to think he will fool audiences into thinking this is more artistic just by mixing up a number of scenes, seemingly at random, and I don’t buy it. The movie plays out like a poorly constructed greatest hits album that omits key tracks and places songs in a poorly selected order that doesn’t allow a listener to understand the artist’s progression.
Most of the praise for this film has focused on Marion Cotillard’s performance as Edith Piaf. I’m willing to take everyone’s word that Cortillard looks and sounds like Piaf, but frankly this type of imitation is not enough to impress me anymore. This is the same trick I’ve seen Jamie Foxx, Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Mirren, and Forest Whitaker pull in various biopics during the last couple years and it’s really wearing thin. It is simply going to take more than impersonation abilities to impress me at this point and Cotilliard’s performance does not deliver the goods. We see Cotilliard as Piaf overreact to a lot of stuff over the course of the movie, the main way Piaf seems to react to everything that ever happens to her is to yell a lot and cry a lot. Admittedly, Cotilliard does manage to convincingly age a lot over the course of the film, and her performance may have worked a lot better if it had been allowed to develop naturally rather than be all over the map because of Dahan’s pretentious editing. But still this is a performance that does not live up to the hype.
Visually the film works fairly well. The film’s cinematography looks quite nice and the camera movements are fluid but unobtrusive. The editing within individual scenes is also quite well done. The supporting cast is also very good; Cotilliard is surrounded by a number of talented actors and actresses to play off of.
The film did nothing to convince me that Piaf was a great singer. I remember going into both Ray and Walk the Line with very little knowledge or understanding about their contributions to music and walked out embarrassed that I hadn’t shown Ray Charles and Johnny Cash the respect they deserved. La Vie En Rose provided no such education for me; I left the film with no desire to hear any more from Edith Piaf. The film does not even provide any particularly memorable performance scenes. Cotilliard does not do any of her own singing like Phoenix in Walk the Line, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the lip-synching and sound mix had been as good as it was in Ray, but it isn’t. Every song in the movie sounds studio perfect, even when Piaf is singing drunk on a street, and the voice coming out of Cotilliard’s mouth feels quite disconnected.
La Vie En Rose is a pretentious mess of a film that pretends to be original when it’s really just more of the same. I do think musical biopics badly need to turn a new leaf, but this film does little more than try to give it a facelift. Dahan’s experiment failed miserably and left us with a mess of a film which I grew tired of quickly into its two hour and twenty minute running time.
*1/2 out of four
[Those interested in seeing the film on DVD should be advised that the Riegon 1 DVD from HBO Home Video has a very poor transfer with terrible black levels]