They say that when you die, your life flashes before your eyes. Those of us who’ve never had such an experience tend to think that this means a chronological account of events, but why should it be so? The unconscious mind works in ways we don’t understand. It makes connections that might at first seem absurd, it holds on to things we think unimportant and lets go of things we’ve vowed to remember. Knowing this is the first step to understanding La Vie En Rose, which is told less as a story, and more as a series of moments feeding into one another.
The film follows the life of Edith Piaf, her rise to fame as a singer, and her death at the age of 47. It’s amazing to realize that Piaf was only 47 when she died. In the film we see her crippled by arthritis and other illnesses – some of which naturally befall her, others she brings on through hard living – barely able to move, but insisting that she’s well enough to go onstage. For Piaf, not being able to sing is tantamount to being dead, so there’s little point in living if she can’t be onstage. By the end of the film, we understand why. Most of Piaf’s life is spent being abandoned by the people she loves, or otherwise torn away from them. But when she’s onstage people come to her, people want her, and it gives her a reason to carry on. Why else would she push so hard to get back in front of her audience, killing herself to share her gift with them?
I’ve heard the film described as being “jagged” and “jarring,” and so it is. You don’t leave the film feeling like you know the life of Edith Piaf, so much as you leave feeling as if you know the person of Edith Piaf. Large portions of her life are omitted from the film – there is no mention, for example, of her resistance work during World War II – and there are characters who depart in the early stages of her life (her mother and, later, her sister) and reappear later without any explanation as to how such a thing came about, but that’s in keeping with the central element of the film’s structure. “I’m losing my memory,” Piaf laments on her deathbed. “There are things I’m trying to remember, and other things keep coming to the surface.” What we’re seeing are her memories as they come back to her, and memory doesn’t flow according to our understanding of time or the principles of storytelling. Instead of giving us the story of a character, director Olivier Dahan has given us the essence of a character so that she’s a person existing in her own right, rather than as the center of a narrative.
Even if you’ve never heard of Piaf, there is a very good reason to see this film and it goes by the name of Marion Cotillard. This is an absolutely astonishing performance. Two other actresses play Piaf at various stages of childhood, but Cotillard carries the bulk of the picture, playing Piaf from the age of twenty onwards. It’s difficult at times to believe that the same actress who plays Piaf at twenty, singing on street corners in order to avoid having to turn to prostitution, is the same actress playing Piaf at the end of her life, looking decades older than her actual age, the life slowly fading out of her. It isn’t a trick that can be attributed to makeup; it’s all in the performance. Cotillard doesn’t simply play Piaf, she completely embodies her. It’s in the eyes, so large you can’t help but be drawn to them, at once hopeful that finally happiness is on its way, scared that some new tragedy will befall her, and yet defiant of anything or anyone that might stand in her way. She wants to be liked, but if she isn’t, that’s not as much her fault as it is the failure of her audience to appreciate her. The film itself can perhaps be described in the same terms. Those seeking a traditional biopic may leave disappointed. But those seeking simply to see a showcase for the most exhilarating performance of the year, will leave very satisfied indeed.