La Vie en Rose


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Imagine, if you will, a biographical movie about Babe Ruth. It shows the troubled childhood, and moves on to the promising early years in Boston. Then it jumps forward to the final year in Boston when an aging Ruth, although only a shadow of his former self, managed a couple of final glories, despite a lifetime of over-indulgence. Then it moves on to his painful death.

Is there something missing? I suppose that most Americans, even people ignorant of the details of baseball lore, will be familiar with Ruth, a dominant figure in our pop culture, and will realize that Babe Ruth - the New York Yankee version - was the essence of America in the 1920s:  swaggering, successful, loud, generous, high on life, carefree. That was America's "roaring" period between the Great War and the Great Depression, and its symbols were Babe Ruth and The Great Gatsby. If you tell Ruth's life story without his exuberant triumphs with the Yankees in the 20s, your story never touches on why he was worth making a movie about in the first place.

That is exactly what La Vie en Rose does with Edith Piaf. It assumes you already know that she is to France in the 1940s as Babe Ruth is to America in the 1920s. Making that assumption, it tells the rest of her story. In fact, the film has only one brief scene which takes place in the period from 1937-1948. Not a Nazi to be seen! Essentially, there's nothing in the film about being the great star and hero of the resistance, and plenty about becoming her and ceasing to be her. Fortunately for the narrative, that's still a good story. In fact it's so good that we would not believe it, were it not true.

Piaf lived a Dickensian childhood in miserable poverty. She was sickly, shunted around between relatives, taken from her feckless alcoholic mother, raised for a while in a bordello, and then in a circus. She was blind, then cured. Her father was a novelty acrobat who left the circus after a dispute with the owner and branched out on his own to test the market as a free-lance contortionist. As you might expect, the market for this turned out to be tiny, so father and daughter lived and performed on the streets for pennies. Piaf worked as a street busker for more than a decade before she was discovered by a nightclub owner (played in the film by Gerard Depardieu, whose presence is legally required in every French movie), whose own colorful and unsavory life came to an end in a brutal murder in which Piaf was briefly a suspect.

After achieving her successes, Piaf disintegrated in the public eye, enduring tragedy after tragedy, and taking a variety of drugs and alcohol in quantities great enough to have destroyed her even sooner than they did. The end of her life played out in public performances in the television era, so her deterioration was as dramatically public as Judy Garland's

Why did she fall apart do dramatically? There were two circumstances in 1949 and 1951 which provoked her deep unhappiness and drug dependency. First, the great love of her life died in a plane crash while flying from Paris to New York to be with her. Two years later, she was involved in an automobile accident which started her dependency on addictive pain-killers. In the end, however, it was neither drugs nor booze which killed her, but cancer, which left her looking ancient at age 47.

The script chose to focus on the tragic "lost love" aspect of the story, which makes as much sense as any other approach one might imagine. After all, Piaf's life included enough material for a mini-series or two, but a biopic must distill that into a couple of hours in which it must focus on some limited number of themes which will hold the attention of an audience. Is it "true" that Piaf burned out because of her lost love, or did she just indulge in the same excesses which have destroyed divas throughout the twentieth century? I don't know. It seems to me that the story of Piaf's uncontrolled public disintegration is more or less interchangeable with Judy Garland's or Whitney Houston's or Janis Joplin's, even though they represented different eras and different musical styles. They all achieved more fame and wealth than they were prepared to handle, and all of their problems exacerbated one another. Still, Piaf was a unique and memorable woman, so the screenplay chose to move away from the  generic diva story and toward elements which would let her breathe as an individual. That's probably a good thing, irrespective of its "truth."

While the major thrust of the film moves chronologically forward from childhood to death, the narrative is not straightforward. There are various loops backward and forward in time to emphasize the correlations between what Piaf was to become and the events that made her so. It's my belief that the filmmakers gave a lot of thought to the sequencing of the scenes, and told the story in a way that is always comprehensible and simple to follow, despite the time shifts. My only quibble is that, as I indicated earlier, you have to know why Piaf was worth making a film about in the first place, because the film never shows you that portion of her life. It does show some of her performances, but they are performed by an impersonator and many of them take place before and after her prime. Even at its very best, Piaf's singing is an acquired taste, a style rooted in her time and place, and would not instantly demonstrate to contemporary audiences why she was considered great. She was kind of a quavering French version of Ethel Merman, a real belter, with volume always seeming to be her main objective, always reaching for either melodrama or humor, and with no real sweetness or softness in her range, so most Americans, especially young ones, will not appreciate her blustery and culturally rooted style of singing. Most Americans will simply not "get" her, as she herself admitted. As a young boy I would occasionally catch Piaf on Ed Sullivan and found her hopelessly quaint. At the time I found her appeal entirely mystifying. My attitude wasn't helped by the fact that my mother, a classical singer of abstemious personal habits, scoffed at Piaf's lifestyle and her "Frenchified saloon singing." (Mom wasn't big on Sinatra or Garland either. What can ya say?)

The point of all that is that the film doesn't work as well for non-French audiences because it chose to tell the story around the edges of Piaf's fame, just as my imaginary Babe Ruth autobiography would not communicate well to non-Americans. An American audience doesn't necessarily need any background on the Bambino's great years if a filmmaker wants to tell a different story about a different part of his life because the iconic Ruth is ingrained in our consciousness, but such a story would prompt a "WTF" reaction from the rest of the world. Some of that reasoning applies here as well. The French don't need to be told why Piaf is in their hearts. For the rest of us, lacking the background, Piaf's popularity can be more than a bit baffling.

Whether you appreciate Piaf's cultural importance or not, it's still an interesting story delivered around a tremendous central performance by Marion Cotillard. It would not be SOP for a French performance in a French film to receive a best actress nomination from the Oscars. The Academy likes to honor its own, of course, but if they were ever going to make an exception, this would be the time. The film is good, albeit not Best Picture good, but the performance is definitely Best Actress good. That was young and old Piaf up there on screen, both played convincingly by the 30ish Marion Cotillard.


* Region 1 features not yet announced







4 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
76 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
66 (of 100)


7.6 IMDB summary (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. It will finish with a respectable gross in the USA by arthouse standards, but it was a monstrous mainstream hit in France, with a box office exceeding $40 million, and it has grossed another $15m elsewhere in the world.


The songs in the film are actually performed, for the most part, by Jil Aigrot. I have no idea why the filmmakers chose this route instead of using Piaf's original recordings. I can only assume that the inferior quality of the sound would have been too obvious, but it seems to me that modern music producers know how to sweeten old recordings quite effectively. Aigrot is a good impersonator, but she's still an impersonator. After watching the film, I listened to the performers back-to-back for comparison, and while Aigrot's singing is actually sweeter and more melodic than Piaf's, with less of the foghorn quality and less irritatingly warbly, it also lacks some of the strident, combustible, on-the-edge personality that made Piaf sing every note as if it were her last - and that's really what made Piaf what she was. Having noted that, I'd add  that the difference is really only perceptible if you do what I did and listen to them at the same time. While you watch the movie you won't really be aware that it's not the real Piaf, unless you are a major Piaf fan and/or truly have an exceptional ear.

Piaf info:

  • An interview with Ginou Richter, one of Piaf's best friends, about the film's take on Piaf.


  • None.


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


C for Anglophones. If you speak English and are not familiar with Piaf, this will seem to be a too-arty film which will give you no indication of why she was important enough to make a film about in the first place. The only really impressive thing about it will be the performance by Cotillard, and it will do minimal box office business in the States, finding only a small (albeit appreciative) audience.

B for Francophones. If you speak French and are steeped in French culture, this film meets our requirements for a B. It is a mammoth hit in France, with a box office exceeding $40 million in a country with a fifth of the USA's population - a definite blockbuster.