A not so rosy life

Submitted by cathy n on 24 July, 2007 - 4:00

Rosalind Robson reviews La Vie en Rose

Edith Piaf’s “rags-to-riches” life story is familiar to many. The urchin who sung for centimes on the streets of Paris after the First World War. The girl who was in the power of a pimp when, by chance, she met an impresario who put her on the stage. The woman who became France’s most popular singer… ever.

Why would anyone in these cynical times choose to tell the story of this queen of old-fashioned sentimental caberet songs? Songs such as La Vie en Rose, written by Piaf, which contains the line “My heartbeats tell me we belong to each other and I see life through rose-coloured spectacles.”

I suppose there are many ways to tell the story of Piaf’s life and I would have liked to know a little more why French people so identified with her story and her, often autobiographical, songs — apart from the fact that these stories, and these kinds of songs were once fashionable.

Stories about triumph over adversity are universal and timeless and easy to understand. They are much older than capitalism, but in capitalist times they can be about a — false — hope that many individuals who have suffered poverty can rise out of poverty. That would have been part of Piaf’s appeal. But it doesn’t explain it all. The songs after all, are not always hopeful, many are very melancholic: a mixture of appeals to God, doomed love affairs and thoughts of death.

And it is this quality of melancholy which Piaf brought to many of her songs, that makes Piaf’s life-work art rather than a collection of sentimental ballads.

But the director Olivier Dahan did not want to explore the relationship between Piaf and her audience. A straight narrative, with biographical detail and historical context would be too old fashioned.

Instead he created a dramatic realisation of Piaf’s emotional life. The director (who also wrote the script) used selective flashbacks to do this. Some parts of her life are here and others are not. He leaves out completely the period during the war when Piaf, posing as an artist friendly to the German occupiers, actually worked for the French resistance. Some scenes (especially the drunken parties) are impressionistic, capturing a mood or a sentiment. And Dahan spends a great deal of time on Piaf’s childhood and these scenes are often very moving.

This is an very good film. As Piaf, Marion Cotillard shows us a complex character who was often shockingly nasty and dictatorial but also frightened and vulnerable. Still I couldn’t help feeling Piaf deserved a better film, or a different film.

There was too much in-vogue psychological knowingness about how the director portrays Piaf’s journey from girl to woman. I could almost hear the media-favoured words, “damaged”, “dysfunctional” and “chaotic life”, lecturing me during the minutes and minutes of film time devoted to scenes from a terrible childhood. But Piaf’s tragedy — abandoment and neglect in childhood, an adult life of drink and drug excess and premature death — was, and continues to be, the tragedy of millions. In that respect this is not the uniquely interesting aspect of Piaf’s story.

Of course the director believes, and who could doubt it, that Piaf’s suffering contibuted to her greatness as an artist. It’s a common idea in “biopics”. The BBC recently ran a series on Beethoven which looked in great detail at his “dysfunctional family”. That wasn’t very convincing and therefore quite annoying. This film depicts the link between “damaged personality” and “great art” better, but as I say, I’m not sure it was the best story of Piaf's life that could be told.

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