This review is for my friend Cordell, as he has been begging me to see this movie for ages. It’s my own fault for not taking the time to see it while it was in theaters.
Every once in awhile, you get a performance that is so utterly brilliant that it leaves you in a state of total awe over what the actor has accomplished. It’s a performance like that which really blurs the line between the actor and the character they are portraying. You don’t see any trace of the actor in the role because they have become their character as opposed to just playing their character. Mickey Rourke did that this past year in “The Wrestler,” as did Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight.” This goes with just about any role that Daniel Day Lewis has ever played in his entire career. An actor’s job is never as easy as it looks (if you’re serious about it anyway), and it involves a lot of tearing down of protective layers that we surround ourselves with to protect us emotionally. To do this requires an immeasurable amount of bravery, and if they succeed in what may seem impossible to some, they will leave you believing that no other actor on this planet could have done what they did.
You can now add Marion Cotillard to that long list of actors with her extraordinary performance as Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose.” Marion plays Edith from when she was a teenager to her death at age 47, at which point she looked more like 60 or 70. It’s surprising to see that she was in her early 30’s when she took on this role, and it is a performance that feels flawless from both an emotional and a technical point of view. She gives a performance bursting with emotion, and her work even toward the latter half of Piaf’s life is never less than believable. Her Oscar win for Best Actress was seen as a surprise by many, but that’s probably because (like me, unfortunately) they never bothered to watch the movie when it was first released.
Watching Marion play Edith at different stages in her life instantly reminded me of the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” It shows Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in his post-boxing years, overweight and smoking a cigar while he runs through his stand up act before going on stage. It then goes from that to when LaMotta was in his fighting prime with DeNiro a lot slimmer and in better shape. I remember watching that moment and almost having to remind myself that it was the same actor playing LaMotta in the movie. Cotillard accomplishes this feat as well in “La Vie en Rose” as she portrays Edith Piaf from when she was young to where her life was fading all too slowly. This is also in part due to the equally brilliant job by the makeup artists who were also deservedly rewarded with Oscars as well.
“La Vie en Rose” does follow the similar path of biopics as we see Edith Piaf from her lowly beginnings as a child, and of how they end up informing the rest of her life as she grows up to become the singer we are so moved by. Director Olivier Dahan does not try to sugarcoat Edith’s life as it was not an enviable one. We see her as being more or less neglected by her mother, and then later by her father when he leaves her for a time in a brothel which ironically giving her some of the happiest moments of her life as she is cuddled constantly by the prostitutes who work there. When we are presented with a childhood that is absent of parental guidance and neglect, we know that this is a life that will be forever wounded and full of what we refer to as “dysfunction.”
Edith as child is played by two young actresses: Manon Chevallier at age 5 and by Pauline Burlet at age 10. Both are wonderful, and their performances are not your average child actor performances that are full of over emoting and forced reactions. I point this out because it is incredibly difficult to pull performances like that of young actors, and both do great work as they chronicle Edith’s young adventures and her inevitable heartbreaks as reality soon crashes down on her.
Olivier Dahan ends up moving the story back and forth in time which in another movie might seem distracting, but it breaks up the usual rhythm of your average biopic to where it doesn’t feel so much like many others we have seen before. In seeing Edith confined to a hospital ad her morphine addiction ravages her already fragile body, we know full well that her story is not going to have a happy ending. But it made me wonder how Olivier was going to end the movie. Would it be at Edith’s dying breath, or at some other point in her life? I leave it to you to find out if you have not seen the movie yet.
Seriously, I cannot get over just how amazing Marion’s performance is in “La Vie en Rose.” She captures the stage fright that threatens to keep Piaf from going onstage, and we see how she slowly overcomes it through her first performance. We then see her move on to bigger houses to sing in, it’s almost like she is becoming a different person as she moves on in her life. From when she becomes an acclaimed star of stage and screen to her tragic demise, Cotillard nails every moment she has in the movie perfectly and never misses a beat. Watching her go from what seems like infinite happiness when she finds who she believes is the love of her life (the look in her eyes is beautiful) to the tragedy that takes it all away is simply amazing. I am still thinking about her performance long after the movie ended, trying to figure out how she accomplished all of this and not get caught up in her technique or in the trap of playing a caricature.
Even as we see her body giving out, and her looking 20 years older than she was, Cotillard makes you believe that you are seeing someone who has lived and experienced much more than the average human being. This could have been where her performance would have suffered from overacting, but she keeps us enthralled all throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. She makes you feel her constant sorrows and brief spells of happiness in all their intensity, and I eagerly wait to see what role she will take on next.
But a lot of credit should also go to director Olivier Dahan for making one of the best biopics ever, and he surrounds Marion with a wonderful cast who does their best to hold their own in the wake of her ultimate tour de force. Gérard Depardieu has a nice supporting role as Louis Leplée, the nightclub owner who discovers Edith singing in the streets, and who gives her the opportunity to perform in front of a big audience. I also loved Emmanuelle Seigner’s heartbreaking performance as Titine, the prostitute who desperately wants to adopt Edith regardless of the odds never being in her favor.
“La Vie en Rose” may tread the familiar ground of many film biographies, but this one has an immense power all its own, and it stands way above many other films in its genre that have been released in the last few years. Marion Cotillard gives, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone correctly said, “a performance for the ages.” I can’t stop gushing over just how phenomenal she is in the movie. I’m so glad she got the Oscar.
**** out of ****