Thursday, July 26, 2007

Édith Piaf: Not So Pretty In Pink

". . . there were periods when I had an irresistible urge to destroy myself."
- Édith Piaf

I am not sure whether it's ultimately tragic or fitting that I chose to see La Vie en Rose a few days before deciding to take a medical leave from work and enter an out-patient rehabilitation program.

La Vie en Rose, directed by Olivier Dahan, is the life story of chanteuse Édith Piaf [France's version of Judy Garland]. Piaf, whose stage name means "sparrow" in French, has the distinction of being the only female singer from France to have become known in the United States.

I'm going to cut to the chase and recommend that you skip the film, or at least wait until it's available from Netflix.

The film's lack of balance leaves its audience dizzy. While purporting to cover her entire life, it, in fact, omits decades at a beat, exclusively focusing on the lowest notes sustained by this high-note warbler. There is little humor and no real triumph in this story -- only sadness, deep pain and isolating addiction.

In short, Dahan's slanted lens turns this biopic, myopic.

Marion Cotillard, the French actress portraying Piaf, has the unenviable task of stepping into the itsy-bitsy heels and huge voice of one of France's most beloved women. Physically, the resemblance is astonishing, right down to the creepy, drawn-in eyebrows (think Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, and that pre-op Latin tranny that's always sitting near the corner of Seventh Avenue and 15th Street). Cotillard is beyond compelling, but her efforts are undermined by a badly conceived script and inconsistent direction. I can't believe I'm going to suggest this, but it's a film that should have been done (and probably will) by an American. From a cultural perspective, it's my instinct that when the French revere something or someone, which is extraordinarily rare and is certainly the case with Piaf, they became incapable of distancing themselves enough to convey the truth of the matter.

Piaf's legacy is based as much rusted life as it is her gilded voice. And again, I can't believe I'm going to write this, but she's as much Judy Garland as she is Liza Minelli and Anna Nicole Smith. The entire lot were (and in Liza's case, still are) capable of delivering train wreck after train wreck.

The simultaneous rawness and clarity of Piaf's voice reaches into one's chest, grabs the beating heart and stops it for a second. She demands your full attention, if only for a tremulous note or tortured turn of a lyric. Her voice is the sound of defiance, kneeling for a moment -- equal parts Holliday, Simone and later-Garland. Tears come without any understanding of French; the universal communicability of her torment is neither helped nor hindered by mere language.

Piaf came from the Parisian slums, the daughter of a circus performer father and a street-musician mother. She was raised for a time in a brothel, eventually leaving as a small girl to join her father making money on the street. She was devastatingly poor all through childhood. She became an unwed mother, only to lose her daughter to meningitis at a young age.

She was discovered singing on the streets of Paris. Almost overnight, she was a sensation. She had actually done it; she had moved beyond her circumstances and could have lived a wonderful, content life doing what she loved.

Unfortunately she carried her demons everywhere. Alcohol, heroin and painkillers stopped the inner voice that tortured her. She suffered well and publicly, married poorly, and lost the one man she truly loved in a plane crash. Hers was a life of tragedy, of epic, Greek proportions.

She died a sparrow silenced, unable to sing or soar, at the age of 47.

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