Thursday, August 21, 2008

Film Review: La Vie en rose (La Môme)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Olivier Dahan's film about the life of singer Édith Piaf, La Vie en rose (titled La Môme in France) feels less like a European film than any picture from France I've seen. Continental filmmakers--even action directors like Luc Besson--tend to favor a deliberate, contemplative approach to pacing that's completely at odds with Hollywood style. (It's why most American audiences find European films almost impossible to sit through.) But Dahan always keeps things hopping. He uses just about every trick he can think of to keep the film's scenes active and lively. La Vie en rose is never dull. But Dahan's approach also points up what makes his take on Piaf's life so unsatisfying. He doesn't reflect on the deeper implications of what he shows us, and he ends up with a shallow, limited portrait of his subject.

Piaf's life certainly wasn't the stuff of dullness. She lived as a street waif, spent part of her childhood growing up in her grandmother's brothel, and nearly went blind from keratitis while living there. (She credited the restoration of her sight to a pilgrimage her grandmother's prostitutes took her on to the shrine of St. Thérèse in Lisieux.) She began earning money as a street musician at 14, had a baby at 17 that died in infancy, and spent her teens around the assorted derelicts, hookers, and thugs that populated the Montmartre section of Paris. At 19, she came to the attention of nightclub owner Louis Leplée, who hired her to sing in his cabaret. After Leplée was murdered, she became involved with the manager who turned her into a star. After World War II, she became internationally famous, had a notorious affair with the champion middleweight boxer Marcel Cerdan, married twice, suffered through alcoholism and morphine addiction, and died of liver cancer at the age of 44. One could make a score of movies from the facts of her life.

The amount of material may be what ultimately defeats Dahan. Thinking back on the film, it's hard to remember any character in it besides Piaf (played by Marion Cotillard from the age of 19 on). Even Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) and Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) don't make much of an impression. Major aspects of Piaf's life are completely ignored, such as her experiences during the Occupation. (Watching the film, one would never know World War II had happened.) There's also nothing about her acting career, or her mentoring of the actors Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour. Dahan treats things like the death of Piaf's baby as an afterthought, and he gives a bizarre emphasis to extraneous bits, such as a prostitute being injured by a customer playing amateur gynecologist. The story has no structure, a failure made all the more glaring by the opportunities in the material. Piaf's early life had a remarkable number of parallels with her mother's; why not use them to give some thematic order to the story? Dahan appears to see the possibilities in using Piaf's prayers as a unifying trope, but he drops the idea almost as soon as he introduces it. The only approach to ordering the material that he adheres to is to not let Piaf's physical decline and death turn the latter section of the film into one long diminuendo. He takes the easy way out: he uses short scenes of the dying Piaf throughout to treat the bulk of the material as flashbacks. But he doesn't bother to hide the cheesy obviousness of that idea; the flashbacks have no relevance to the scenes in Piaf's future that prompt them. Dahan just doesn't think like a writer.

He does think like a director, though. The film is full of superbly realized setpieces. I was most impressed with his handling of the scene where Piaf learns of Cerdan's death. He begins by showing Piaf dreaming of Cerdan arriving in her hotel suite, and then, awake, driving herself crazy because she can't find a gift she wants to give him. Her entourage gathers and informs her that Cerdan has been killed, and, devastated with grief, she flings open a pair of doors to find herself onstage again. Using a Steadicam, Dahan films this all in a single take. One can almost imagine Brian De Palma, the master of single-take Steadicam scenes, jumping to his feet in applause. And there are many other examples of filmmaking savvy, such as the scene of Piaf's triumphant music-hall debut: we see the audience slowly go from skeptical to ecstatic despite Dahan's keeping Piaf's singing off the soundtrack. Visually, the film is extraordinarily well-realized. The cabarets and music halls, Depression-era Montmartre, late-1940s Manhattan--Dahan and his art directors and designers keep them dreamy and realistic all at the same time. The attention to detail is extraordinary.

And that extends to the performance of the film's star. Marion Cotillard does a masterful job of mimicking Piaf's surface mannerisms and, with the help of some ace make-up artists, her physical appearance. It's the kind of performance that in Hollywood films has Oscar written all over it, and earlier this year, Cotillard became the first French actor to win the prize for work in a French-language film. But it's not the sort of thing I'm impressed by. Cotillard's Piaf comes off like a nightmarish cross between Giulietta Masina and Liza Minnelli. She's waifish, but invariably loud, insufferably high-strung, and almost monstrously temperamental. The performance is also too one-note in most scenes; it's hard to reconcile the overbearing Piaf with the calm, almost blissful one we see in her moments with Cerdan, or in a beachfront interview with a French journalist. One doesn't object to these scenes; they're the only ones in which I enjoyed Cotillard's performance, but the failure to address the incongruity is troubling. It's not a well-rounded portrayal.

La Vie en rose makes one wonder if it's a sign of increased homogeneity in Western filmmaking. The French director approaches his work like a Hollywood one (an ambitious, imaginative one, but a Hollywood filmmaker nonetheless). The French star seems to take her lead from the negative example of the Hollywood prestige-picture acting of Meryl Streep: surface detail is all; emotional truth is secondary. (Cotillard is nowhere as boring as Streep was at her technically masterful worst, but the similarities in their styles are hard to miss.) Worst of all, the concerns of good writing, such as developed themes and solid construction, seem to fall by the wayside. And production values are, of course, first-rate. Several years ago, Terrence Rafferty described another Hollywood-style French film as "the death of French cinema." It's not dying, but, language notwithstanding, it may have entered a phase where it's no longer uniquely French.

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