Olivier Dahan’s ‘La Môme (La Vie en Rose)’ (2007)

31May09

I’m often hesitant to heap praise upon performances in these biopics because I don’t think that mimicry always equals a great performance. I would rather see an actor who can accurately convey the spirit of the person even if she cannot master every mannerism. However, Marion Cotillard’s performance in La Vie en Rose as beloved French chanteuse Edith Piaf is a superb example of an actor really inhabiting, and not just mimicking, another person. She attacks the role with a ferocity and dedication that’s undeniable, and the superb make-up by Didier Lavergne only enhances her work. Cotillard deservedly won the accolades of critics as well as myriad prestigious awards, including the first Oscar for a French-language role and the first Golden Globe and BAFTA given for a foreign language role. Indeed, her performance makes La Vie en Rose worthwhile. With a less compelling lead, Olivier Dahan’s depiction of Piaf’s life would be entirely too banal to merit much attention.

Yes, Piaf led a complicated life, but as portrayed by Dahan it doesn’t seem all that different from many a tragic celebrity. Drugs, alcohol, and failed relationships are the standard fare of films about famous musicians. Why not include Piaf’s activities during World War II? She received criticism for performing at German Forces social gatherings, but Piaf claimed that she was a member of the French Resistance. She also was instrumental in helping several people escape Nazi persecution, and supposedly posed for photos with French prisoners of war so that they could use the pictures to make fake passports. While I can see the challenge of fitting a person’s life into a film of reasonable length, even someone who only lived into her early forties, I don’t understand why Dahan would choose to omit aspects of Piaf’s life that really distinguish her experience from so many other stories of tragic geniuses. Also, for no discernible reason the narrative is nonlinear, jumping back and forth through time at random. This presentation doesn’t augment the film in any way and, in fact, I found the non-sequential approach detrimental to understanding the progression of Piaf’s life and career.

What Dahan does do right is putting Piaf’s voice at the forefront. Cotillard lip synches a number of her songs and many others are woven into the soundtrack. My enthusiasm for Piaf’s music undoubtedly increased my enjoyment of the film, but despite Cotillard’s tremendous performance I can’t say that I really liked it.

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