The problem with many biopics is that they treat art as an accident of genius. Think of Ed Harris in Pollock, with Jackson “discovering” drip painting one day while drunk. Art, in biopic language, comes not from hard work and talent, but moments of almost childlike genius, which us poor mortals could never hope for. There are some biopics, however, that take a more intelligent tack. Thankfully, Olivier Dahan’s La Môme, which opened this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is such a film.
La Môme (its English title is La Vie en Rose) is a smartly constructed, intelligent and insightful look at the life of legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf and is crowned by Marion Cotillard’s astonishingly real and powerful title performance.
The first intelligent directorial decision was to treat Piaf’s life in non-chronological order; the film moves between periods of her life in what at first seems a random fashion, but which reveals itself to be carefully planned.
Watching La Môme is rather like delving into Piaf’s mind as she lies dying. Scenes from different eras come flooding back, linked together by internal associations and her songs. It’s a great way of approaching a biopic – Clint Eastwood did the same thing in Bird – because it resembles memory, that seemingly random jumble of thoughts, fears, sadness and happiness, ordered and remixed by experience. It works brilliantly here: After some initial confusion (“Which part of her life am I seeing now?”) you begin to follow this random logic, and by the end of the film you feel as if you have gained real insight into what made this creation called Piaf tick.
Because Piaf was created. Her name was given to her by one impresario (“piaf” was old Parisian slang for “sparrow”), and her vocal style was honed and rounded by another, who also suggested (if the film is to be believed) her hand movements on stage. It is this construction that Marion Cotillard so brilliantly brings to the screen.
While the rest of the cast is great – especially Sylvie Testud as Piaf’s street friend – Cotillard owns this film from first shot to last. She inhabits the character, living it, dragging you into Piaf’s world, just as Piaf appears to have done to all those around her. (The film depicts her as a terrible diva, throwing tantrums and hissy fits. When one associate says that she should be less demanding and difficult, her wonderful reply is, “If I can’t be like this, then what’s the point of being Edith Piaf?”)
In every part of the character’s life, from her rough-and-tumble beginnings on the street to her gradual acceptance by French and New York audiences, and her lonely death in Switzerland, Cotillard brings a humanity and a sense of helplessness to this fragile/strong woman.
It’s a performance you won’t forget in a long time. I walked out of the screening here in Berlin surprised not just by how good Dahan’s film had turned out to be, but also at how Piaf’s voice and songs had hit me so hard in the solar plexus. I’ve always found her strange intonations and old-school accent nothing less than annoying, but when La Môme gave me a fourth goosebumpy, tears-in-the-eyes moment I finally realized just why Piaf remains the most famous singer France has ever produced. Her pain, her talent and her life are in every song she ever sang – and when you listen to them, she invites you to live it all with her, note by note.Favorite