Monday, January 28, 2008

My Life in Pink

I struggle with this movie. Olivier Dahan's biopic of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, La Vie en Rose, has garnered fair-to-good reviews, and I was eager to see it. I don't speak French, and the cabaret is not an aspect of French culture that resonates particularly with me. But I do have a CD or two of Piaf, and there clearly is some lit-from-within aspect to her voice. Knowing only the shadowy details of her hardscrabble upbringing, I was curious to fill in the blanks. So what's the problem? Acting? Pacing? Production? Did they get the music wrong? Do they not capture the period? No, it's none of these things.

It's a huge task to take someone's life and distill it down to two hours, and there must always be some dispute about how this is achieved--decisions must be made about whom to emphasize and how much, which incidents merit attention; how these things are weighed says something about the film's creators: is a thing truthful and realistically balanced, or does this scene just make for compelling footage? For whatever reason, the import of individual people and episodes here is not always clear (e.g. her manager seems to have some love interest with her, but this angle goes nowhere. Did I read this wrong?).

But I could make peace with most of these things. A couple smaller items threw me off the scent, though, and it took some effort to remain locked in afterward. First, I was put off by how the story is laid out. Piaf was sickly for much of her life, but the movie bounces between illness and wellness periods in her life, backward and forward, in what seems indiscriminate fashion. I kept searching for meaning in Dahan's bouncing around from period to period but I couldn't make out the connective tissue. She's sick; she's still sick much later; then she's drinking and carousing with friends at some intermediate period; then she's falling in love; her father berates her as a small child; now she's in her final moments. Though the film begins with her childhood and ends with her decline, everything in the middle seems a scramble, a series of episodes, seemingly ranked in random order in the film. Perhaps if I knew her better--as the French maybe know every salient detail of her short life--these things would make more sense to me, or they would represent a freshening of a story I already knew. But in my case it just kept me searching for something that may not have been there, like the BVM on my pancake griddle.

And then there is the characterization itself of Edith Piaf. On the DVD jacket Marion Cotillard is credited by someone with "The most complete and astounding immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another ever encountered on film." And her accomplishment is quite impressive. Apart from a couple young girls to cover Piaf's early years, Cotillard brings us along the rest of the singer's life, from roughly age 20 until her premature death from liver cancer in 1963 at age 47 (at which point, apparently, she was exaggeratedly aged). Like Anthony Hopkins's characterization of Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's film, it seems a hugely daunting task--maybe a no-win situation--for an actor to portray a person who exists so vividly in the modern memory. Cotillard herself concedes that a strict imitation of Piaf is doomed to failure, and her goal as an actor was to get inside a character and make the portrayal coherent and respectful of its inspiration. But, though I think her efforts are impressive and deserve plaudits, the portrayal comes across for me as just a wee bit too much, just a hair over-the-top. The look and mannerisms and gestures are almost silent film in their broadness, and at times she teeters on the edge of caricature. A couple times she plays Piaf almost as though the singer was autistic, with an odd disconnect to the world around her, Cotillard bobbing and mugging and hobbling.

It is a huge transformation--to see Marion Cotillard in the DVD's special features, I was shocked at how different the actor looks from her character, especially in Piaf's later stages. And without my knowing anything about Edith Piaf except what I've learned by this film, I can't say that she hasn't brought us as close to the woman as we might get. Certainly I could not counsel her on how to be more effective. But as it is, I was just never able to distance my attention from Cotillard the performer, from her transformation, from the makeup and the lip-syncing and the aging. I just don't feel like I've met the star of the film.

I would give high grades for subject matter--Edith Piaf certainly merits a biopic--and for effort, but the end result for me just peeks above the median.

Grade: C+

No comments: