Wow. La Vie en Rose took my breath away.
When the film first came out, I read a couple of reviews that made it sound like one of the best of the year. In one of those, Steven Rea, a favorite of mine, wrote that La Vie en Rose “visits the usual benchmarks, juggles them around, emphasizes sharp detail over seismic events, and delivers the portrait of a life that is vividly, explosively real.” Other reviews weren’t so kind, however. A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote that the film “has an intricate structure, which is a polite way of saying that it’s a complete mess.” And Metacritic, which compiles the reviews of many prominent reviewers, gave La Vie en Rose a sort of middling ranking. So I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Rea was right: La Vie en Rose is brilliant. As you may know, it’s a biopic of French singer (chansonnier?) Édith Piaf. Her life—beginning on the streets and in brothels, reaching the heights of fame, and ending much too soon in physical and emotional agony—is inherently fascinating. Director Olivier Dahan’s nonlinear, impressionistic telling manages to make Piaf’s story even more absorbing.
Dahan’s method is a big part of the dispute between critics like Rea (“vividly, explosively real”) and Scott (“complete mess”). Going into the film I didn’t know much about Piaf’s life, but I nevertheless found La Vie en Rose‘s version to be compelling. If you had to tell the story of your life, you probably wouldn’t tell it in a straightforward A-to-B-to-C fashion. You’d talk about themes, and you’d dance back and forth a little bit through time. La Vie en Rose does that.
This impressionistic style absolutely does not get in the way. In general, the movie gradually takes the viewer from Piaf’s childhood to her premature death. Sure, there’s some “juggling” of time here and there, but I was never confused; I always knew what part of Piaf’s life I was watching. For me, Dahan’s use of time added complexity to the film, causing me to focus on traits/themes; it made the film more involving, not more messy.
Marion Cotillard’s performance as the adult Piaf is startling. In his review, Rea said Cotillard’s lip-synching was “perfect.” That’s not quite true, but it’s nearly so. More importantly, Cotillard seems just to become Piaf. It was easy to forget I was watching an actor. Cotillard does more than an impersonation; she captures Piaf. I won’t be at all surprised if she’s remembered at Academy Awards time. She’s that good. The two child actors who played the young Piaf are quite good, too.
La Vie en Rose is highly recommended. On a four-star scale, I’d give it three or, probably, three-and-a-half stars.
Go see it.