Despite an editing style that makes a hash of conventional chronology, 40-year-old Dahan's biopic of Edith Piaf is a film that astonishes. Beautiful cinematography and rich (though uneven) mise-en-scene contribute, with a solid supporting cast including Sophie Testud (as Piaf sidekick Momone), Pascal Greggory (as faithful manager Louis Barrier), Emmanuelle Seignier (as Titine, the prostitute who became her surrogate mother), and Gérard Depardieu (as the man who first recognized the magnitude of her talent) and crowned with a spectacular lead performance by Marion Costillard that's both go-for-broke and precisely accurate right down to the fingernails.
La Môme Piaf, the kid sparrow, born Édith Gassion and so re-named by Louis Leplée (Depardieu's character), emerges as in intense, suffering, passionate spirit, a believer in love and Saint Theresa (restorer of her eyesight) who exemplifies the image of the doomed artist. Things are turbulent from the start and never stop being that way. As we see the young Piaf, she's abandoned by her street-singer mother, raised in a brothel, almost goes blind, is ripped away from her surrogate mother to tour in a circus with her father and begins to sing when accompanying him as a street-performing contortionist. The crowd wants her to do something, so she sings the Marseillaise in a simple ringing voice and a star is born. But she's not out of the gutter till fashionable cabaret owner Leplée whisks her off the street and onto his stage to be discovered in turn by a composer and a radio impresario and by then she's already a heavy drinker. Drugs and tragedy accompany the growing fame in this whirlwind tale that runs in circles.
As the film shifts back and forth vertiginously between Piaf's last days (at only 47!) one sustained story is her love affair with French boxing champion Marcel Cerdan (a handsome and appealing Jean-Pierre Martins) that begins when both are in New York. This tender and sweet interlude in the maelstrom ends tragically when Cerdan dies in a plane crash heading back to New York see her. Piaf acts out her grief spectacularly before a full audience of friends, hangers-on, attendants, and handlers. Unlike the realistic sets of the early life, the New York ones are symbolic and stagy.
We see a jumble of happy moments and sad, triumphs and disgrace. Some things are omitted Piaf's actions during the Occupation; her marriage late in life to a very young Greek singer. After the plane crash took away her married boxing champion lover and she was in a car accident it's suggested she was never far from the morphine needle, but we're missing specifics of her drug addiction and its effects on her health. Apart Cerdan, there aren't many details of her loves and marriages. We flash-forward to one of many onstage collapses and a period of convalescence when the singer looks more like an old woman than a 40-year-old and moves like a stuffed mummy. That last triumphant performance at Paris' grand music hall the Olympia one of her stamping grounds in her days of fame is cancelled even by her, but then when a composer plays a new song for her, "Je ne regrette rien," she says it's her, she must rise to sing it and she's inspired to go ahead with the Olympia concert and the song what became her final anthem.
Even though Dahan has said he doesn't hold to the idea that misery is a necessary ingredient of art, his version of the Piaf story is never far from that commonplace romantic association. Cotillard brings the singer powerfully to life, but one wishes the unremittingly tumultuous film granted Piaf a few peaceful everyday moments, a quiet sit-down for a coffee and a cigarette, a dinner without being drunk.
Even though there are place names and dates flashed on screen to help us wade through the meandering chronology, the film gives no very clear sense of the shape of the life. How much did her existence change when she became an icon? Was there any sustained period when she was famous, healthy, and happy all at the same time? Did she really have affairs with Aznavour, Montand, Marlene, et al., as rumors say?
"The narrative had to be impressionist, not linear," Dahan has commented. Certainly this isn't studied, analytical film-making but, as Dahan's remarks suggests, the wildly impressionistic kind. Dahan's last film was the nightmarish Crimson Rivers II; his background is adventurous but not altogether distinguished. He's done music videos, which may help explain the editing style. That editing is such a whirlwind on her deathbed we go back to her childhood and moments or adult triumph with some remarkably cunning elisions between that when the final Olympia performance of "Je ne regrette rien" comes, we're wrung out. It is in the closing sequence leading up to this finale where the delirious editing style finally begins to make good sense, but such warped chronology doesn't sustain well over two hours and twenty minutes, and one wishes it had been used more sparingly early in the film so it would be more climactic at the end.
La Vie en Rose/La Mome may leave one with lots of questions and a few doubts, but its emotional power is supported by good sound and image. Even in its cardboard New York sequences, the film is glowing and beautiful to look at. The singing is a seamless amalgam of enhanced Piaf recordings and the spot-on work of voice imitator Jil Aigrot, with exceptionally convincing lip-synchs done by the tireless and really remarkable Marion Cotillard. Whatever you may conclude about this overwhelming, chaotic film it really doesn't want to give you time to think you're going to grant that Cotillard delivers one of the most remarkable star performances ever in a singer-biopic. This will make you weep.