Thursday, June 21, 2007

Je Regrette La Vie En Rose

The only really good thing about La Vie En Rose, the biopic of Edith Piaf now in theaters, is the music. Piaf's voice echoes off the screen and mesmerizes so effectively that you understand the momentum that carried this production forward. The last number in the movie "Je Non Regrette Rien" is still playing in my head, despite the fact that the film never convinced me that Piaf could possibly not have had numerous regrets for her sad mess of a life which is documented in the film.

The narrative here is more than regrettable. And it isn't the usual show-offy European mess, in which one has a sense of the Director trying to stand out in your mind with weird images and stylistic closeups. In this film, I really had the sense that the filmmakers were trying their damnedest to write a biopic that would do justice to their larger than life subject, but they were just not up to the task.

This piece is impossibly episodic, with incoherent bits of Piaf's life, played with three different actresses, being intercut in no particular order. The moments are played as highly melodramatic, proceeding unsympathetically from the character of Piaf herself who is all screams and shrieks and unmotivated bad treatment of the people around her. I disagree with the reviews I am reading that claim that the central performance, of Marion Cotillard, is wonderful. I found the make up and costuming the real wonder here as Cotillard is aged so seamlessly, that I thought there were actually four actresses playing the character. The performance to me was over the top, without any moments of nuance that would have drawn me into sympathy with Piaf. I was watching my own lack of sympathy during the screening, wondering, "Have I become so hard-hearted that this woman's plight is not touching me at all?" But no, I am not hard-hearted. The problem is the storytelling, and the acting which was at the level of caricature much of the time. But she really looked good though in the sense of looking and moving like Piaf.

Here's a note about biopics. Most beginning writers (and the principal writer Of La Vie En Rose is a first timer) make the mistake of trying to tell a whole person's life in two hours. You can't do it. In this sense, La Vie is a clinic in the biggest mistake people make in biopics, namely, the failure to make tough choices. What you must do to make a biopic intelligible and entertaining, is pick one phase or theme in a subject's life that somehow gives a sense of all the rest of their life. That means you have to choose to leave a lot of cool stuff out.

La Vie, by contrast, starts with Piaf at five, and then jumps us around from her mother abandoning her to a brief scene of her father in WWI to her father suddenly back and picking her up from a woman we learn is her grandmother. Then, we see her dumped in a brothel and contract blindness, and then meet some friendly prostitutes, and then get snatched back by her father and brought into a circus, and then suddenly she is fifteen and singing on the street with a new friend who becomes a major character, but not before Edith's alcoholic mother shows up begging for money before Edith is discovered by a club owner who gets murdered with Edith's underworld connections which we have just learned that she has, leading Edith to be investigated for the murder, before Edith is really discovered by a guy named Raymond who teaches her how to sing professionally while she is shacked up with a guy who fathers her child which dies two years later of meningitis, and we haven't really gotten to her singing career you see what I mean? And that isn't even to the midpoint of the movie.

Way too many events, not enough real moments. Way too many people running by, not enough characters.

But IRONICALLY, another big complaint I had with the film is that it leaves out one big huge HUGE part of Edith's life that I actually wanted to see. World War frickin' Two is skipped over without a mention. Here we are in Paris in 1939, and then suddenly, we are in New York in 1952! HUH!!!??? After the screening, I did some googling on Piaf and discovered that she bravely used the access of her celebrity to save countless lives as a member of the Resistance. I find it to be a stunningly bad choice of the filmmakers to leave all this out of this film. But the idea of "What did she do in WWII?" was diestracting me all through the second part of the movie. Like telling a story set in NYC on September 12, 2001 - without mentioning 9-11. It's hard not to think it is devious.

The film works very hard to show Piaf as being an unrelieved narcissist. It makes the case that she really isn't to blame for being a mess of a human being, but then proceeds to stare at her drunkenness, her rages, her adulteries and her drug use with unabashed voyeurism. The heroics of Piaf's Resistance work really mess with this picture, eh? So they had to be left out presumeably. Some day I am going to write a book about truthtelling in biopic/historical pieces, but for now, know that when you sit down to write a person's life, you owe some fidelity to the essential truth of the person.

On second thought, I don't think they meant to leave out the one good thing Piaf ever managed to do. I don't think the writers here were skilled enough to be aware that even a historical biopic needs a point of view. They left out WWII becaus ethey just didn't have time to go through it all. They thought it was enough to stuff in as many events from Piaf's life as they could without a lot of thought as to what the project was about thematically. It wasn't. Such a project ends up being unsatisfying as documentary, and equally unsatisfying as narrative.

Having said all that, I did retreat quickly in the first act from my expectations that this would be an entertaining movie, to trying to enjoy the visions from the story of 20th century Paris that it recreates. I also spent a lot of time brooding over the mystery of artistic talent. Done much better (because it was conscious!) in Amadeus, this movie is a reflection on how awful personally a person of unbelievable talent can be. And also how the very gifts that are given through the artist to the world, often corrupt the artist herself. (ref. JPII Letter to Artists) But all of these thoughts still didn't make this movie seem less tedious, plodding and repetitive.

Pass on La Vie En Rose. Do go out and buy an album of Piaf's music, however. Her gift still works.

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