Director: Olivier Dahan, 2007.
La Vie en Rose tells the biography of Edith Piaf, France's most famous singer, who died in 1963 at the young age of 48. Writer-director Dahan brings an astonishing performance from Marion Cotillard as Piaf. Cotillard seems to have submersed herself into this role, looking and sounding remarkably like the actual singer. So terrific is her acting here that she won the Oscar for best actress. Even as Piaf ages, and she did go downhill very quickly, Cotillard is lost in the person of Piaf.
Born Edith Gassion, she was given the stage name La Môme Piaf, literally the little sparrow, by a music club owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who gave Piaf her first break. (Coincidentally, La Môme was the American title of this movie when released in the States.) The name fit perfectly since she was a diminutive 4 feet 10 inch with the voice of a songbird. This stage name stuck and she has been known since as Edith Piaf.
Piaf's early years were hard. The movie picks up when she is five, with Manon Chevallier playing young Edith. Her father is a soldier in battle and her mother is an alcoholic street singer who has little time to care for a small child. Eventually her father came home from the war, but as a circus contortionist he was no great help, and so he carted her off to his mother, a madam running a brothel. It was there that she first felt love, from the prostitutes. In particular, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner, from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) adopts a motherly role for her. But after several years, her father returns to take her to be with him in the circus and then onto solitary street performance. It is there, with him, that she first gets to sing in public. She discovers that she has a voice that others will pay to hear.
With no real family and no real home, Edith "graduates" to street singing on her own, just like her mother, but with a friend Mômone (Sylive Testud) who stood by her. Mômone would go on to be a life-long friend and companion. It is on one of these street corner performances that she is discovered by the music club owner.
The rags-to-riches story is a powerful one, but one of the downfalls of this compelling film is the way it is structured. It continually cuts from one era to another. It is never quite clear where Piaf is. Worse yet, it does not explain the various characters that surround her in her entourage. Major segments of her life are omitted. There is scant mention of her marriages, and only one of her husbands from her marriages shows up.
Throughout the film Edith Piaf's rise to stardom is accompanied by pain and loneliness. Early on, her association with the French mob causes a key friend to be murdered and her to be placed under suspicion. Later, a car crash puts her in hospital and leads to her addiction to painkilling drugs. Yet, despite these setbacks her life was her singing. Perhaps her greatest tragedy was her ill-fated love of married champion boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins).
The title of the film, La Vie en Rose, is one of her signature songs. Translated as the rosy life, or a life through rose-colored glasses, it sums up Piaf's life. She approached life with verve and gusto. Indeed, later in life she gives an interview while sitting on a sun-drenched beach knitting. "If you were to give advice to a woman, what would it be?" Piaf replies, "Love." Again, "To a young girl?" and she replies once more, "Love." Finally, "To a child?" And Piaf reiterates, "Love." Though she had more than her share of heartache and did not experience the kind of love we expect as a child, still she knew in her heart that love is what counts. Love is the glue that can hold a life together. Biblically, we know God is love, the very essence of his being is love (1 Jn. 4:8). And he has poured out his love to us in Jesus, his son (Jn. 3:16). We can experience this love and then share it with others. Love can make our lives meaningful and enjoyable.
Piaf sings another of her signature songs at the end of the film, my personal favorite: "Je ne regrette rien." This translates as "I regret nothing," or more colloquially, "No regrets." Again this symbolizes Piaf's life. She lived with no regrets. She made some bad decisions, and some good ones. She drank too much, took too many drugs, got involved with some of the wrong people. But she looked at the big picture of her life and regretted nothing. She took the heartache with the love. How powerful to live a life without regrets. To live fully, to embrace all that life throws at us, to be big enough to neither regret nor blame, but simply accept. With all her faults, Piaf is an example of this.
Perhaps the reason Piaf had no regrets was that she had discovered her true purpose in life. At one point in the movie, she says that she must sing else she will die. Nothing, not physical collapse nor car wrecks, could stop her performing on stage. The cinematography underscores this, viewing her from behind and showing her looking out at the audience. We are in her shoes, somehow realizing that this is the place she had to be. She sang because she was a singer. It was in her very nature to sing. Singing gave expression of who she was. Like Descarte's famous, "I think therefore I am," Piaf could have said, "I sing therefore I am."
Piaf leaves us with the thought: are we who we are because of what we do, or do we do what we do because of who we are? Being must precede behavior. If we have discovered who we really are, the gifts and talents that God has given us, then we can find outlet for them in our jobs, in our vocations, in our ministries, in our lives. The closer we align our lives to our gifts the more satisfied we will be and the less regrets we will experience. Even in our spiritual gifting that is true. If we have accepted Christ, the Spirit of God has given us at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:7). We are to exercise this gift in the body of Christ, for the benefit of the church and the kingdom of God. When we are doing this, we are empowered. Blessed indeed is the person who knows his talents and spiritual gifts and aligns them with life.
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs