before_dawn’s review published on Letterboxd:
A Five-Star-Film is an extremely rare thing, but La Vie en Rose, the timid gem that seized two Oscars and many of the most revered film prizes in the world, confidently receives this rating. La Vie en Rose is the real life story of Edith Piaf (1915-1963), the polemic, beloved and ephemeral French singer, who became an international sensation during the 1940-50’s. And fulfilling the purpose of the movie, Marion Cotillard is a ravaging Edith, with a performance as profoundly authentic and shattering as none other. I was surprised when Cotillard received the Oscar of Best Actress, long before I had the chance to enjoy this film, and was amused at her distinctly quirky acceptance of the prize. Nonetheless, it has now become clear to me that few actors in recent memory have deserved this prize more. Perhaps Stephen Holden from the New York Times said it best: “Marion Cotillard’s feral portrait of the French singer Édith Piaf as a captive wild animal hurling herself at the bars of her cage is the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another I’ve ever encountered in a film.” If La Vie en Rose were merely a one-person show, Cotillard’s portrayal would be sufficient to declare this film indispensable.
Edith’s turbulent childhood is embodied by a young girl, whose vulnerable but recalcitrant eyes effectively capture the singer’s latent flame. As a young child, Edith changes hands between her drifting mother, the childless women of a brothel, and her determined bohemian father, but remains practically penniless until she first sang on a sidewalk at the age of nine. The power of her voice was unmistakable and would only be overshadowed by the emerging strength of her character.
Marion Cotillard first becomes Edith during the singer’s ebullient, alcohol-drenched, and slightly less destitute adolescence. From that moment Cotillard captivates her audience with a performance that is profoundly heartening and intensely electric. Edith’s rise is meteoric, from the “gutters”, to Parisian adoration, infamous disgrace, and finally, global idol. Cotillard is successful in carrying the flame of Edith through her ardent romances, alcoholism, morphine addiction, arthritis and devastating inner pain. But despite the weakening of Edith’s body and the pain of her soul, Cotillard manages to show us the resilient magic of this woman, whose inner angel or fairy just shines through.
Other performances are stellar as well, and not only help to buttress Cotillard, but also bring to life all the unique magic, tragedy and warmth that surrounded Edith. Emmanuelle Seigner plays Titine, the vulnerable prostitute that cared for young Edith as the daughter she is unlikely to ever have. Jean-Paul Rouve succeeds in making the audience sympathetic to Edith’s father, despite him leaving his daughter to be raised by her grandmother at a brothel and later putting her to sing on the street. Silvie Testud plays a rebellious friend from the days singing on the streets. Gerard Depardieu plays Papa Leplee, who first saves Edith from the streets and makes her a sensation at his cabaret. And finally Jean-Pierre Martins becomes Marcel Cerdan, the gentlemanly boxer that captures Edith’s heart.
La Vie en Rose is not only an exceptional film because it brings Edith to life spectacularly. It also satiates the audience with a generous examination of the human experience with the many unexpected secrets it can contain. It is electrifying and charming, devastating and uplifting, existentially tragic and fulfilling at the same time. Not surprisingly, despite a number of successful American films about singers, Ray Charles and Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose feels entirely different. That is because even more than essentially human, La Vie en Rose is quintessentially and unmistakably French.