This review is for my friend Cordell as he begged me to watch this movie constantly.
Every once in a while, you witness a performance so utterly brilliant that it leaves you in a state of total awe. It’s the kind of performance which really blurs the line between the actor and the character they are portraying. You don’t see any trace of the actor because they have succeeded in fulling inhabiting a character as opposed to just playing one. Mickey Rourke pulled this off in “The Wrestler” as did Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” and this goes for every role Daniel Day Lewis played in his entire career. An actor’s job is never as easy as it looks (if you are serious about the craft of acting that is), and it involves tearing down all those protective layers 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 no other actor could have played such a role as good as they did.
You can add Marion Cotillard to this list after witnessing her extraordinary performance as Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose.” She plays Edith from when she was a teenager to her death at the age of 47, at which point she looked more like she was elderly. It’s surprising to learn Cotillard was in only her early 30’s when she took on this role, and it is a performance which feels flawless from both an emotional and a technical point of view. She gives a performance bursting with emotion, and her portrayal of Piaf at the latter part of her life is never less than believable. Her Oscar win for Best Actress was seen as a surprise by many, but this is probably because they never bothered to watch the movie when it was released.
Watching Cotillard play Edith in the different stages of her life instantly reminded me of the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” It showed Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in his post-boxing years, overweight and smoking a cigar while he runs through his standup act before going on stage. It then goes from there to when LaMotta was in his fighting prime with DeNiro a lot slimmer and in better shape. I remember watching this transition and almost having to remind myself it was the same actor playing LaMotta. 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 those experiences end up informing the rest of her life as she grows up to become the singer we were so moved by. Dahan does not try to sugarcoat Edith’s life as it was not exactly 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 gave her some of her happiest memories as she is cuddled constantly by the prostitutes who work there. When we are presented with a childhood which is absent of parental guidance and neglect, we know this is a life which defines the word “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 off performances like these for young actors, and both do great work as they chronicle Edith’s young adventures and her inevitable heartbreaks as reality eventually comes crashing down on her.
Dahan moves the story back and forth in time which, in another movie, might seem distracting, but it helps break up the usual rhythm of your average biopic to where it doesn’t feel so much like others we have seen before. In seeing Edith confined to a hospital after her morphine addiction has long since ravaged her already fragile body, we know full well her story is not going to have a happy ending. Still, it made me wonder how Dahan 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 this out.
Seriously, I cannot get over just how amazing Cotillard’s performance is. She brilliantly captures the stage fright which 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, and it’s almost like she is becoming a different person in front of our eyes. 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 which takes it all away is simply enthralling. I am still thinking about her performance long after the movie ended, trying to figure out how she accomplished all of this without falling into the trap of playing a caricature.
Even as we see Edith’s body giving out, and her looking 20 years older than her actual age, Cotillard makes you believe you are seeing someone who has lived and experienced much more than the average human being does. This could have been where her performance would have suffered from overacting, but she keeps us entranced throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time.
But a lot of credit should also go to Dahan for making one of the best biopics ever, and he surrounds Cotillard 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 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. Cotillard gives, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “a performance for the ages.” I can’t stop gushing over just how phenomenal she is here. I am so glad she got the Oscar.
* * * * out of * * * *