Glitter in the Gutter 

La Vie en Rose shows us why singer Edith Piaf matters.

La Vie en Rose is a seductive musical biographical film with a transcendent performance by Marion Cotillard as the legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf. But before we get to that, let's tackle a pair of tough questions: Who was Edith Piaf, anyway? And why should we care?

Writer and director Olivier Dahan's nonlinear biopic addresses both these questions, of course, but let's pretend we've never heard the name Piaf before, let alone any of her body of resolutely 20th-century work. First, listen to the voice: sharp, clear, piercing, with amazing tremolo, high-pitched and yet emotionally profound, deep as the ocean. Even if we can't understand French, we're attracted to her Gallic throatiness and the way she rolls her Rs.

There's urgency here. It doesn't take much imagination to picture some sort of love story — a tragic one — unfolding in her songs. We get the same sense of backstory in Piaf's vocals that we do in the singing of Billie Holiday (or Hank Williams, for that matter), as if the life she lived and the life she sang about were the same. Piaf lets everything out, but not the way American Idol contestants do. Her approach is the opposite of studied and mechanical — it sounds completely unrehearsed, as if she were warbling in the street, cold and shivering, dreaming of a bowl of soup and the boyfriend who stood her up. We should care about Edith Piaf because she was one of the very few genuine articles in world pop music in the past hundred years. The unremitting tragedy of her life is a surprise dividend.

The French, as is widely known, adore suffering. That's why they love Leonard Cohen, Bud Powell, and Jim Thompson. Piaf suffered exquisitely all her life and was rewarded for her pains. Born in Paris to an Italian immigrant street-singer mother and an itinerant performer father, young Edith is placed in the custody of her grandmother, a bordello madam in Normandy. Director Dahan (La Vie Promise) and director of photography Tetsuo Nagata paint the entire first half of her life in shades of gray. One of the first things she learns from her fellow inmate, unlucky prostitute Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), is that there's always a legionnaire — a beau mec to break your heart. Pimply-faced little Edith goes blind from keratitis, but her eyesight is restored by praying to Saint Thérèse de Lisieux. The Little Flower appears to her in a vision, her guardian angel for the rest of her life.

Dahan overuses flashbacks and flash-forwards, but as we veer from 1959 to 1935 to 1963 to 1940 and beyond, we see that Piaf earned her street cred with the French working class the hard way: circus hired girl, harried street singer in Place Pigalle, and her big break when a club owner (a restrained Gérard Depardieu) plucks her off the corner, puts her onstage, and dubs her La Môme Piaf — her real name was Edith Giovanna Gassion. The Little Sparrow kills them (what a set of pipes!) and eventually moves from Montmartre to national and international success, but she never cuts her connection to the gutter. In fact, for all the scenes of Piaf conquering the crowds in grand concert halls, the diamante brute's best performances take place drunk in the dives, surrounded by pimps, whores, and assorted riffraff, her real public.

Cotillard, who had a featured role in A Very Long Engagement, captures the tentativeness and vulnerability of Piaf's appeal as she cringes before an audience. This girl of the slums is frail, haunted, scared, alone, out of luck, strung out (hooked on morphine late in life), exhausted, and head over heels in love. Even at the height of her success, she doesn't look happy. Her joy is always extreme, her lows bottomless. Maybe that's why despite her celebrated romance with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) — the guy who got his block knocked off by Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull — Piaf's closest personal relationship was with her street partner Momone, artfully imagined by Sylvie Testud. Along the way, the movie leaves out World War II and Yves Montand.

Except for one or two rousing scenes of impromptu songs performed in her own voice, Cotillard lip-synchs to Piaf's recordings, heavily weighted toward the ones that were hits in the United States: "La Vie en Rose" (the film's French title is La Môme), "Milord" (she evidently hated that one), "Je Ne Regrette Rien." The film spends too much time, about a quarter, in New York and Hollywood, then tries to make up for it by having Piaf express her disdain for an iffy review in the American press: "They think I'm sad. I don't get them, and they don't get me." But times change, and sadness might be better appreciated in the States these days. The strong voice of a poor, disadvantaged woman may have its uses, and La Vie en Rose, for all its romantic, theatrical grimness, is a good place to start.

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