La Vie en Rose – Marion Cotillard is Beyond Exquisite

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 * * * *

Amy

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I remember the first time I listened to Amy Winehouse’s album “Back to Black.” It transported me to another time and place that had long ceased to exist as her music sounded like something out of the 60’s. I actually found her album at my local library and downloaded it onto my iPod with the hopes of listening to it one day. Once I did get around to listening to it, I couldn’t turn it off as I was too captivated by her amazing vocals and heartfelt lyrics.

It was profoundly sad to see Winehouse’s life get cut short at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning. In some ways, her death wasn’t a huge surprise as she had endured a lot of substance abuse and paparazzi harassment in the years leading up to her death. She had become a tabloid punchline as it appeared as though she had no desire to hide her debaucheries from the public eye. Many of us rooted for Winehouse to pull herself out of her downward spiral and struggled to understand why she would self-destruct on such a public level, but it only goes to show just how much we know about being famous. One person described her as being an old soul in a young woman’s body, and this became even more the case as time went on.

The documentary “Amy” succeeds in giving us a very intimate look at Winehouse not just as a public figure, but as the person she was before and after she achieved worldwide fame. Many who knew her personally are interviewed here, and it gives us a picture into a life which became irrevocably damaged by fame and substance abuse. But even though we know how her story will end, the documentary brings her back to life for a short time, and it feels like she is still with us.

“Amy’s” first image will forever burn in my memory as we see the singer at her best friend’s 13th birthday party. We see her sing the song Happy Birthday and can’t take our eyes off of her as she does such an amazing job of belting it out. This proved to be the best way to start this documentary as we see right then and there a star has been born. Listening to her makes you wish she would sing at your next birthday party, seriously.

The documentary is full of never before seen home videos and footage which helps to give her more complexity and dimension than the media ever could while she was alive, and this makes seeing “Amy” all the more necessary. The singer has long sing joined the ranks of Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday, famous singers whose lives were cut short at such an early age, and like them, she deserves to be known for more than her vices.

What “Amy” shows is how Winehouse was a woman who got into music as a form of survival. Having been a child of divorce and suffered from depression, music and singing offered her an outlet from all the psychological damage life kept inflicting on her. She never saw herself having a career as a singer, and she admits early on she didn’t set out to become famous because she didn’t think she could handle it. Those words soon prove to be prophetic.

It was great to see all the home footage of Winehouse as it gives us a side of her the public never got to see until now. She appears for a time to be a fun-loving girl eager to spend her days with friends and smoke weed, but like any famous artist she was a tortured soul whose eagerness to sing was more about getting negative energy out of her system than making millions of dollars.

The fact “Amy” is such an intimate documentary isn’t a huge surprise to me as it was directed by Asif Kapadia, the same filmmaker who gave us one of the very best documentaries of the last few years with “Senna.” Just as he did with “Senna,” Kapadia invites us to spend time with a celebrity who we previously saw through the distorted lenses of corporate media.

It also gives you an up close and personal view of how damaging fame can be. One scene has Winehouse going up to the stage to accept an award, and the noise of the audience and fans quickly becomes deafening, illustrating how her life had become a fish bowl which cut her off from everyday reality. It’s not hard to feel for her as the prying and voyeuristic eyes of the media render her private life nonexistent.

Her addictions included alcohol and hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, but perhaps her biggest drug of all was the tempestuous love affair she had with Blake Fielder-Civil. The fact she and Blake didn’t meet the same fate which greeted Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen seems amazing considering how deeply intertwined they were in each other’s lives and vices. Woody Harrelson in “Natural Born Killers” said “love beats the demon,” but for Winehouse, love may have proven to be her biggest demon even as it fueled some of her most unforgettable songs.

“Amy” also calls into question how we deal with celebrities whose lives are spinning out of control. Winehouse became a punchline for comedians as her woes continued endlessly, and what might have seemed funny while she was alive now seems cruel in retrospect. Perhaps we are numbed to the suffering of celebrities as we have many examples of famous peoples’ lives getting cut short from one generation to the next, but it also shows the pleasure many took in her self-degradation. Now you may say she brought this all on herself, but did she really?

It’s horrifying and ultimately heartbreaking to see Winehouse in her last days as such a gaunt and unhealthy looking person. Many have called her a nasty diva but, as Kapadia shows here, she was really trying to escape the constant glare of the media and attention she never set out to get. At the last concert she did before her death, one she did not want to do, she refused to sing a single note even as the crowd mercilessly booed her. From a distance this looks like the antics of a spoiled pop star, but it was an act of defiance on her part as she was struggling to escape the famous persona which had been thrust upon her. Sadly, she found the escape through death.

Now I may be making “Amy” sound like a truly depressing cinematic experience, but while it is heartbreaking, it is also joyful as well. Winehouse was an exceptionally gifted singer, and hearing her voice when it is not being backed up by a band is jaw-dropping to witness. She really did have one hell of a voice. Also, Kapadia pays close attention to the lyrics she wrote and how autobiographical they proved to be. After watching “Amy,” it will be impossible to look at any of her songs the same way again.

There are wonderful moments when Winehouse performs in London for the Grammys after getting clean and sober, and it’s great to see her excitement when Tony Bennett comes onstage. When she ends up winning a Grammy, the theater she’s in bursts into applause and cheers, and it’s exhilarating to see everyone’s reactions as all the hard work paid off in a great way. Of course, this moment is also tinged with sadness as we know this will be the last true moment of happiness in Winehouse’s life.

Granted, “Amy” has been dealing with some controversy as her family has blasted the documentary as being inaccurate. Her father, Mitch, has been especially critical as he feels the filmmakers portrayed him in a very negative light. Mitch, in all fairness, has a right to feel this way, but Kapadia has given us an objective look at him and everyone else featured in a way which doesn’t moralize or demonize anyone. Any faults of Mitch shown onscreen are his to own up to, but at least the movie doesn’t show him as being completely absent throughout his daughter’s life.

For what it’s worth, Mitch comes off a lot better than her daughter’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who openly admits to introducing Winehouse to crack cocaine and heroin. The fact he admits this to Kapadia in an interview is astonishing, and it makes clear he is the one with the higher price to pay for Winehouse’s demise.

I’ve watched a number of documentaries recently which have been very entertaining, but many of them dig only so deep or touch at the surface of their subject’s life. It’s like there’s something missing which makes the whole endeavor seem like a loss opportunity when you look back on it. But “Amy” proves to be one of the very best documentaries in the past few years as it examines its subject objectively and without fear, and it leaves no stone unturned as it uncovers the many aspects of this troubled singer’s personality.

Just as he did with “Senna,” Kapadia has made “Amy” as a way to get to know this famous personality in a way we never had before. It’s like he has brought her back to life for a short time to where it feels like she never left, and it is nice to see her portrayed in such a way more befitting to who she was as an individual instead of how she was as a worldwide famous celebrity.

It was nice to meet you, Ms. Winehouse. Sorry you couldn’t stay with us a little while longer.

* * * * out of * * * *