2007. Marion Cotillard doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to mark international cinema with a major musical biopic. A success I had to mention here: La Vie en Rose, by Olivier Dahan. SPOILER ALERT LEVEL 5/5.
Twelve years ago, before Christopher Nolan, Olivier Dahan had Marion Cotillard die on the silver screen while portraying one of the greatest ladies of the French variety, Édith Piaf. If that death in Nolan’s film made people laugh, the one in Dahan’s has given the actress the most prestigious awards and career. The emotion is intense, the vision just and the music, lyric and poetic, flies around in the air.
The construction is quite close to a classic kind of biopic: childhood, teenage, a difficult start of a career, ascension, fall, excess and death, except that here, the narration isn’t a straight line. It goes from a life instant to another, telling everything with great elegance.
If we start by the great artist falling on stage, we continue with her childhood. At her death, we are taken back to her youth memories that we’ve followed before. The sequence’s proportions have a great balance and act as questions and answers with each other.
All of Piaf’s life, or almost all of it, is on film. Is it real? Despite the fact it can’t be exhaustive, and that it moves lines here and there, the film is not real but credible all along. The singer’s character, her gestures, her tragedies and her successes are shown in a brutal, sometimes cruel, manner.
We’re thinking, mostly, of this one-shot sequence announcing the death of Marcel Cerdan to Édith, who’s at first certain he is here with her, in her usual mood, and then devastated walking back on stage in the light. This whole sequence is, however, done without a note of music. Strange for such an important moment. That’s where Dahan shows the genius he is. Piaf’s vulnerability is there, her strength is in the music. The contrast is blow-minding and the sequence magnificent. And we could write a lot more about this dazzling scene.
More than that, the music goes through the film as it has gone through Piaf’s life. Often magic, it is, also, often brutal, unexpected or violent. The music marks joys and sorrows until we get to Non, je ne regrette rien. First, it is the artist who’s listening to it, with great emotion. She feels understood and able to accomplish a lot more. Then, it is her voice singing that, again, brings a tear to our eyes.
This film is immense in many ways. Artistically accomplished, the result is still sincere and proof of a global admiration for the artist without wanting to hide her darkest moments. Despite her character, we grow fond of La Môme Piaf until the end with her gaze, lost in the sky and this memory on the beach. No intertitles, writings or explanations. The film doesn’t need them. Nor does Édith Piaf’s life.