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La Vie En Rose

Let me run off a list of names for you:

Yves Montand.
Marcel Cerdan.
Marlene Dietrich.
Jacques Pils.
Theo Sarapo.
Edith Piaff.

If you know who more than one of these people are, if you are already familiar with their place in Parisian and/or American culture, than you might enjoy this movie. Maybe. If not, then this movie is going to be to you what it was to me – an unholy mess of people coming and going, swirling around one central character who alternately throws fits, gets drunk, and, occasionally, sings. This is the story of Edith Piaff’s life, and apparently the director has decided that she’s the only important person in her own story. The other characters never get introduced, come and go as they please, and aren’t really distinguishable from each other. Two of them are husbands, one (or more) are lovers, and the rest are teachers or servants or managers or something. I can’t really tell.

“La Vie En Rose” starts out okay. There is the obligatory biopic flashback, then we watch as Little Edith gets handed from mother to father, then from father to grandmother, who runs a whorehouse in Paris. The prostitutes raise her until her father comes back for her, and the two of them join a traveling circus — he’s a contortionist. I was reminded of Fellini’s “La Strada,” especially in this scene:

After that, it descends into a confusing funk that just gets wilder and wilder, until the movie ends with a startling deathbed confession. I’d like to say I didn’t see it coming, but the way this movie’s structured, it’s impossible to see anything coming. We follow, or at least attempt to follow, three timelines – Young Edith (20ish) Middle Edith (30ish) and Old Edith (40ish, but looking 70ish.) The movie switches back and forth between these lines with no rhyme or reason, leading me to ask my wife over and over again, “so… where are we? What’s happening? And who’s THAT guy?” There are, occasionally, really unhelpful titles, that say things like “Los Angeles California – Five years later.” Five years later than what?

So maybe I’m not supposed to follow a chronological storyline. One could make an argument that all of this is being remembered by Old Edith, and we hardly remember things in chronological order, do we? But we usually remember them in some kind of thematic order, or at the the very least, in some kind of linked order (this table reminds me of that chair, and when she sat in it, which reminds me of him, because he almost married her…) But if these flashbacks, and flashforwards, and maybe flash sideways, are linked in any way, I couldn’t identify it. This movie is in desperate need of a voiceover. And I hate voiceovers.

Somewhere in the middle, it coheres for a few moments, to show us Edith falling desperately in love with Marcel Cerdan, a middle weight boxer. Played by Jean-Pierre Martins with grace and suave, he was the one character who stayed around long enough to become recognizable, even likable, and then he dies in a plane crash, and we’re left once again stuck in a room with sobbing Edie, singing Edie, and the revolving door of supporting characters you may or may not have seen before.

When I think about biopics that have worked, there’s always a chronological arc, either triumphant (like “Walk the Line”) or tragic (like “The Aviator.) In the former, you root for the character early on, and feel gratified when they succeed, like you were a part of their success. (“See? I told you all along he had the talent. He just needed to get off the dope.”) In the latter you see the early signs of their impending downfall, and live in both dread and anticipation. When they fall, you live with a certain sad nostalgia, like you knew them when. In “La Vie En Rose,” past present and future all blend together, and this approach makes Edith Piaff impossible to identify with, to root for, or to know. She becomes just someone passing by, someone rather dramatic and irritating, who can really sing. I’d go see her show, but I wouldn’t bother going backstage.

Recommended

  • if you’re already a huge Edith Piaff fan. But it might break your heart.
  • if you’re really into divas.

Not Recommended

  • if you don’t already know who Edith Piaff is;
  • if you like coherency, plot and dramatic arc in your movies
  • if divas drive you nuts.
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