"La Vie En Rose" aka "La Môme" (Olivier Dahan, 2007) Sentimentality is a funny thing. The world over, people wept for France's "little sparrow" Edith Piaf and the brief life that was snuffed out too soon. That she was the instrument of her own demise made no difference. That she started out as a street urchin, singing for her drinks and drugs, was discovered and "cleaned up" for public consumption but never lost the grime of the street from her soul, went through love and loss, then disappeared into a fog of drugs that left her a shell of what she once was, didn't matter. Driven by ego and the need for acceptance—from an audience she now had contempt for—she continued to perform, collapsing on-stage frequently, and still had the temerity to sing, as her last signature piece, "I Have no Regrets."
Swell. As I said, sentimentality is a funny thing. Watching Dahan's "La Môme," (or "La Vie en Rose" in this country) K muttered: "...France's Judy Garland." Yes, but I don't think Garland was so ferociously unempathetic. Piaf wore her street-toughness like armor and treated those who tried to manage her...with disdain. They must have really loved her to keep working for her, to the point of self-delusion, to the detriment of their own worth.
Not very sympathetic thoughts for a celebration of "the little sparrow." But, Dahan made a tough-minded film that still manages to eke out sympathy for its hard-bitten subject. And there are moments of visionary work: I'm thinking of the sequence of Piaf's formal "debut"—with new wardrobe, new presentation, new hand gestures and a hard-taught respect for a song's text—all done in fading montage and a burgeoning score. But Piaf is silent (a practical consideration, as there are no recordings of her during that period). It's a controversial, contrarian move, but all the more powerful because of it.
It showcases Piaf as presentation, and the point could not have been made more forcefully had a singing voice been dubbed in. A lot rides on Marion Cotillard's performance of that scene, and she is never less than stubbornly brilliant in the film, brushing away easy sympathy for the character, and conveying her power brutishly. The film also won an Oscar for its intricate make-up work, but Cotillard works far beyond its confines to convey the ravages that life, but mostly Piaf's stubbornness, heaped upon her shoulders.
When Piaf died, I was in grade school and the teacher brought in her records to play for us what the world had lost. Most of us listened attentively, though not comprehending what this had to do with the price of tea in China (as if we cared about that, either!). But a bunch of the kids hid giggles behind hands and snorted at the quavering tones and incomprehensible language. As that old memory came bubbling up, I couldn't help thinking Piaf would be on the side of the urchins and not the sparrows.
C'est la vie.