I finally got round to seeing La Vie en Rose, the multi-award winning bio-pic on the life of Edith Piaf last night, and I have to admit, I was underwhelmed. I’m not sure if it was because I came at the movie cold; whilst I knew (everybody knows) her songs, I knew little of the singer’s remarkable early life – born in poverty, abandoned by her mother, raised in a brothel then a circus finally being discovered singing on a Paris street corner and turned into a star. And I also knew nothing of the nature of her stardom – the addictions, the affairs, the temper, the shyness – except of course that it existed and she is probably the most iconically famous Frenchwoman to have ever lived.
My problem was that film took for granted that I know these things; the re-telling of them was as breezy and unsubtle as a Hallmark miniseries. The vignette style of film-making, jumping from time and place, from grief to addiction, from childhood to addled premature aging, with all the freneticism of a sparrow, further complicated matters. But then, maybe that was the point. Roger Ebert notes:
This mosaic storytelling style has been criticized in some quarters as obscuring facts (quick: how many times was she married?). But think of it this way: Since there are, in fact, no wedding scenes in the movie, isn’t it more accurate to see husbands, lovers, friends, admirers, employees and everyone else as whirling around her small, still center? Nothing in her early life taught her to count on permanence or loyalty.
It’s also pretty hard to write about the movie from a locations point-of-view, since the film is almost entirely shot on set (in Prague – always a trusty stand in for early twentieth century Western Europe). Even here though, the results are dodgy; Reuters notes:
Olivier Raoux’s sets are erratic, with fine details in the early Paris sequences but with New York sets of surpassing phoniness.
I did however love the dramatic switch in lighting between the grim, post-war drabness of Europe and the drained, bleached, sunglass filtered brightness of California. No wonder everyone wanted to move there.
Ultimately, the film just didn’t explain emotional appeal of Piaf. She was too brawly to be the underdog, to gauche to be sweet, she was self-absorbed, self-destructive and self-pitying – none of which are particularly appealing characteristics. Talented? Absolutely, and the film makes that abundantly clear. But does that account for Piaf’s almost religious appeal? Having sat through La Vie en Rose, I actually still don’t know.