Note: Posted, March 9, 2009… Watching the replay of the Oscar awards, seeing Marion Cotillard among past Best Actress winners paying tribute to this year’s nominees, reminded me again of last season’s film on Edith Piaf, France’s Little Sparrow. I still have to watch all the nominated movies for 2008. But the Oscar ceremonies prompted a third review of “La Vie en Rose”.
What follows is a revised version of a journal entry following the first viewing of the movie, which was a huge family affair punctuated by sniffs and hiccups and laughs.
This is the quote under Edith Piaf’s photo in “Legends”, an old Time-Life book that I’d bought months back and opened coincidentally an hour before watching La Vie en Rose.
After some googling, I learned the quote was from a New Yorker obit, by Janet Flanner, written on the day Piaf died in 1963.
The same article pointed out that Piaf’s close friend and France’s great playwright, Jean Coctaeau, died on the same day, of a heart attack on hearing of her demise.
Yet he had known it was a long-time coming. Piaf had spent her last year “practicing dying” (a phrase my doctor-friend uses for each one of his mom’s recurring medical crises). Coctaeau had even recorded a eulogy for Piaf, which national radio played in the last hour of his life.
Forty thousand Parisians clogged the streets of France’s capital to mourn a national treasure. Yet the Little Sparrow was denied burial in the Roman Catholic Church cemetery.
The reason for the snub was Piaf’s scandal-filled life, which La Vie en Rose, the movie, shows in frame after sordid frame, punctuated by the strange innocence of the sparrow’s faith in every child’s patron saint, Therese.
I have always loved Piaf, who was at turns flippant and wry and then heart-on-her-sleeve, often according to what was happening in her life. For a long time she was on my list of legends who’d be impossible to portray on stage or in a film.
But if Marion Cotillard never does another movie in her life, she will be remembered for this tour de force.
In one part of the movie Raymond Asso, the composer-poet who turned Piaf from a cabaret entertainer into the nation’s premier torch singer, tells the defiant waif to live the songs.
Well, Cotillard doesn’t just act. She lives Piaf, is Piaf — from petty, waspish self-absorption to reckless bravery and generosity, and every phase between love’s radiance and heartbreak.
When she learns of the death of her boxer –lover, Marcel Cerdan — the man she yearns to own and yet sets free to fulfill his duties to wife and children – she breaks into a primal scream, staggering and reeling through a corridor she had once strewn with blooms for her paramour.
It is a harrowing moment that makes the jump from screen to audience. It is with a sharp and real physical pain that you absorb what were the first moments of the sparrow’s long, lingering death.
Critics have slammed the jerky movements between eras and the effort to confer sainthood on Piaf. But there is little coyness in La Vie en Rose, hardly any platitudes nor romanticizing of vices. The whores are whores, despite their devotion to saints; the drunks only get drunker.
In this, it is very French; training unsparing, cruel eyes on the soul and not flinching from the bile that pours forth, telling us that in this same slimy liquid course the ingredients of greatness.
And it is so in the brilliance of Piaf’s voice, which ebbs and crests the entire film, channeling the miseries of her youth and her time and, by some alchemy, transforming these into paeans to love.
The movie drains you. It is overwrought. She is vulgar, suicidal, constantly hurling her frail self against cages real and imagines imagined. Perhaps it’s just our clan, known for wild hearts and lost causes and our half-mocking laughter, that sees Piaf’s end, stooped back and balding head included, as an exclamation point to a life well, if not always wisely, lived.