The LIttle Sparrow Flies
The San Francisco International Film Festival’s 50th anniversary run, which ended last month, was a raving success by virtually any standard. Attendance was up – way up, with more than 100 sold-out screenings. Quality remained high, with an impressive panoply of interesting films from all over the world. It ended on a high note, too: Closing Night featured the West Coast debut of “La Vie en Rose,” a blockbuster bio-pic from France.
France isn’t known or loved for its blockbusters – generally, it’s the quirky, avant-garde character studies or bizarre riffs on well-known genres, especially thrillers and romantic comedies, that warm the French cinemaphile’s heart. But sometimes, usually when focused on the life of some great Frenchman, they can pull out all the stops. And there’s no doubt about Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose”; it’s an epic portrait at the same end of the scale as a David Lean or Oliver Stone biographical picture.
Only it’s a Frenchwoman this time, arguably the most beloved of the 20th century. “La Vie en Rose,” which opens today in San Francisco and other major American cities, tells the hyper-Dickensian tale of Edith Piaf, the extraordinary French singer who became an international sensation in the years decades following World War II.
Dubbed “La Môme Piaf” – “the Little Sparrow” – by the club owner who discovered her singing for centimes on the streets of Paris, Piaf lived almost unbelievably melodramatic life. Born to penniless street performers, raised in a circus and then in a whorehouse, she boozed and barreled her way around the underbellies of Montmartre and Pigalle, before riding her impossibly emotive voice to the heights of fame and fortune – only to come crashing down in a maelstrom of drugs, heartache, car accidents and illness.
It’s a familiar story arc in biopics, but this rags-to-riches-to-ashes tale is so lurid on the way up, so tremulous on the way down – split by a hauntingly brief moment of perfection – that it makes “Scarface” feel like a Hallmark movie of the week.
Along the way Piaf’s embroiled in a murder mystery, beds movies stars, falls in love with gangsters and prize-fighters, insults Americans for not being French, spits out companions for sport, and sucks down bad wine and good heroin like throat lozenges. Nicole Ritchie and Lindsay Lohan are rank amateurs compared to this broad … Paris Hilton’s gone to jail? Piaf would eat her for breakfast and spit her bones on the steps of the Bastille just for brandishing that first name.
And through it all, there’s Piaf’s voice – deceptively small and thin, like her brittle little body … then building, building, into that outrageous vibrato that washes over every song, drives home every lyric; a voice that’s at once unnervingly personal, to the brink of anguish but always defiant, and yet embodies all the rues and boulevards of Paris, the history and hearts of her people, tout le France!
Piaf’s life is like Mexican telenovela, but it’s her music that reigns over all – the people around her, her Transatlantic audiences, she herself, even time. (The climactic tune here is “Non, je ne regrette rien” – “No, I Regret Nothing” – not “La Vie en Rose,” but the latter is more well known to American audiences, hence the U.S. title I presume. The film is called “La Môme” in France.)
The Little Sparrow looked twice her age by the time she died at the age of 47, which is only one of the things that makes the on-screen persona of Piaf crafted by actress Marion Cotillard such a marvel. A beautiful young woman known to those who’ve seen “A Very Long Engagement” or “A Good Year” with Russell Crowe, Cotillard transforms utterly in this film, out of herself and into the many incarnations of Piaf, who squeezed more stages into a 47-year-old life than Darwin found between gibbons and humans.
Cotillard is fantastic, lurching and slashing through “La Vie en Rose” with all the eruptive force that it must’ve taken to be this intense little bundle of contradictions. Piaf is thrown to the dogs like runt in childhood, but she’s too resilient to be a victim; she’s narcissistic, cruel and increasingly delusional throughout her heyday, yet she’s far too self-actualized and compelling to detest; she’s wildly irresponsible throughout, both with her talent and her life, and yet she’s nakedly authentic when she sings, and bitingly honest when she speaks.
Cotillard is joined by some of the big names of French cinema, including Gerard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Seigner, but this is her film, and she’s tears up every scene like a diva on a rampage.
The only thing she doesn’t do is actually sing; Dahan wisely goes the route Taylor Hackford paved with his 2004 Ray Charles biopic, “Ray,” and expertly dubs the vocals. Like Hackford’s film, “La Vie en Rose” is beautifully edited, with seamless recreations of Piaf’s performances, utilizing her actual vocals. Some voices just can’t be imitated.
Ray’s was one of them, and that didn’t stop Jamie Foxx from snaring the Oscar for his performance. Piaf’s is most certainly another, and nothing should stand in the way of the international critical acclaim Cotillard deserves for bringing this soaring performance of the Little Sparrow to the big screen.
PJ Johnston is president of the San Francisco Arts Commission and a former executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission. He served as Mayor Willie Brown’s press secretary and now runs his own communications consulting firm in San Francisco. A former journalist, he has written about movies for several publications, including the San Jose Mercury News and – long ago, in a galaxy far, far away – for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Email PJ at firstname.lastname@example.org.