La Vie en rose
Starring Marion Cotillard, Gerard Depardieu, and Pascal Greggory. In French with English subtitles. Rated PG. Opens Friday, June 15, at the Ridge Theatre
For obvious reasons, musical biopics tend to focus either on the early stages of a performer's career or on artists who had the good cinematic sense to die young. But based on the evidence provided by La Vie en Rose, if you cast well enough, you can pull off just about anything. This latest screen version of the life of Edith Piaf is, quite simply, the best film of its kind ever made, and for one reason only: Marion Cotillard. The 31-year-old French actor interprets "La Mí´me" from the ages of 14 to 47 (which, in Piaf's case, looked more like 97) with absolute conviction, aging at precisely the right speed, infusing her gestures first with fear and inexperience, then with the confidence that comes from genius achieved, and, finally, with the despairing knowledge that her candle has burned out much too fast.
To be sure, director and cowriter Olivier Dahan does sugarcoat and obscure certain details of Piaf's early life. Her childhood battle with cataracts, for instance, was even more terrible than the film suggests, and her recovery was miraculous enough to tempt even an atheist to genuflect.
Similarly, the director eliminates not only the famous bedmates whom "the little sparrow" took under her half-erotic, half-maternal wing (Yves Montand, Eddie Constantine) but also draws the curtain down on this chronically insecure singer's compulsive promiscuity.
Showing that side of Piaf, of course, might spoil the perfection of her tragic love story with middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan.
These are minor quibbles, however, in a pulpy masterpiece that is more masterpiece than pulp. From her discovery by the underworld-connected "Papa" Leplee (Gérard Depardieu, playing the first of Piaf's many gay admirers) to her arrival in post-war New York City, the star's life feels just right. Then, when a car accident drives her toward morphine and calamitously accelerates her descent, Cotillard gets, if anything, even better. In each junkie tremor we see the uncertainty of the street singer who never knew when she would next eat. Every time a tremendous sound emerges from an increasingly frail frame (no one can overdub Piaf, but Cotillard makes it seem as if you can), we thrill to another victory torn from the death that seemed to loom over La Mí´me's shoulder from the day she was born.
La Vie en Rose provides the very best that commercial cinema has to offer.