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July 31, 2007

La Vie en "Biopic": La Vie en Rose - Olivier Dahan

Posted by Lincoln Allison

La Vie en Rose
Directed by Olivier Dahan
certificate 12A, 2007

I am not an enthusiastic cinema-goer and generally mock those who think that sitting in the dark gawping at images manufactured some distance away ranks highly in the list of human experiences. It takes pretty bad weather to get me inside a cinema on a summer evening. But we have had some pretty bad weather and so I went along to watch La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan's film about Edith Piaf. I won't attempt to hide my feelings about the film: it was brilliant - atmospheric, moving, intriguing. For two and a half hours I was somewhere else, away with it, taken out of myself in a way that cinema can transport you, though it hardly ever does with me. One of the best films I have ever seen. My companion, who makes a point of never agreeing with me about anything, agreed. I was soon off to the library to get out all the books on Edith Piaf.

And off to the computer to look up reviews. Where I got a bit of a shock because, to my astonishment, they were mixed. Of the three countries I confined myself to - the USA, France and here - there were unfavourable reviews in all cases.

Sure, there were plenty of good ones: in America, Roger Ebert, arguably the best known cinema critic in the country, suggested it could be the best "biopic" ever made and the New York Times and Boston Globe were fairly ecstatic. In England, Johnny Vaughan said in The Sun:

If this is not a movie, I don't know what is. A must-see.
But the British broadsheets, echoing the rather faint praise of Le Monde across the channel, took a different tone. Cosmo Landesman in the Sunday Times gave it three stars out of five, remarking that it was
one of those biopics that likes to think it is not a biopic
while Anthony Quinn in The Independent gave it two stars, claiming that it completely failed to "explain the meaning" of Piaf's life.

However, one thing was beyond dispute: everybody thought that the performance of Marion Cotillard as Piaf was superb irrespective of whether they thought the movie was good, bad or great. Cotillard is a tall, glamorous, straight actress from a happy and privileged background playing a dwarf singer who was an unwanted child brought up in a brothel and a circus. In her own words, Cotillard "usually plays bimboes", but here she had to lip-synch perfectly, grow hideously raddled and adopt the body-language of a tiny, frightened woman. And she does all that technical stuff to perfection and carries on to grab you by the throat emotionally. But enough of her!

The critics' target is Olivier Dahan's shaping of the film as director and I find their criticisms more than interesting because I think an examination of them reveals important truths about what critics are, about what cinema is and even about "the arts" as they are conceived in our times. The three main accusations made against the director are: First, that the film is confused and confusing. Instead of offering us a narrative of the "rise and fall" variety (which, I submit, would have been tedious and depressing) it takes eight or ten episodes in her life and shuffles them, constantly cutting backward and forward, to the point that conventional terms like "flashback" and "flash-forward" lose their meaning. Thus, although we start with a big chunk of the childhood of Edith Gassion, employing two child actresses, there are things we do not learn about her childhood until the end. The story is not told coherently, but Dahan isn't trying to tell a story coherently. This is a portrait, not a story.

The second indictment is that he leaves important questions unanswered. We see Piaf being interrogated about the murder of her first real mentor, the club owner, Louis Leplee (played by Gerard Depardieu). The scene reprises a famous news photograph, which I guess would be much better known in France than in England. (I have no idea why news photographers were allowed to take pictures inside police interview rooms in France, but they were.) But we are never told who murdered him or why or what Piaf had to do with it.

This is nothing compared to Dahan's acceptance of Basil Fawlty's famous advice: he doesn't mention the war. Since Piaf was from the ages of 25 to 30 living in Paris under German occupation there are some serious questions. Which German officers did she have sex with and why? And is it true that she was allowed to visit internment camps, but that the photographs taken there were used in false documents which facilitated the escape of political prisoners? Dahan's non-linear method allows him to ignore these questions. Good for him!

Thirdly, Piaf is a "pain in the arse". Well, yes: a midget drug addict from the criminal classes, a bit of a tart, capable of venomous ingratitude to those who were good to her and incapable, as another of her mentors, Raymond Asso, put it of doing anything competently except sing. I wouldn't want her as a role model or a lifelong companion, but that doesn't mean she wasn't interesting or isn't capable of bringing a lump to your throat when she sings. But if anyone has the full catalogue of excuses for being a pain in the arse, it is she. And, yes, the words Je ne regrette rien are pretty silly when you think about it - just about as silly as "I did it my way" (also a French tune, of course: Comme d'habitude by Claude Francois and Jacques Revaux).

The general problem would appear to be that if you make a film about a real person it is deemed, willy nilly, to be a "biographical picture", a biopic. This is not true in the theatre. I have never heard anyone call Macbeth or Saint Joan "bioplays" or give their authors stick for not answering the right questions. The factual and ethical questions about what Piaf did in the war can be attempted by biographers and researchers and discussed in documentaries, academic seminars etc. A film might simply adopt one of these answers, but film makers are not there to do original historical research.

Unfortunately, even if you say you are not making a "biopic" (as Dahan did) and make it obvious through the structure of your film that you are not, some of the wretched critics will still treat you as if you are. For me there is a stark contrast with Sir Richard Attenborough's 1982 film Gandhi. This is a very bad movie indeed, plodding, simplistic and unoriginal. It does attempt to be a full-on biopic with a linear narrative and ends up squeezing what should have been at least a 12-hour TV series into a single film. It does offer an interpretation of its subject - a simplistic, hagiographic interpretation worthy only of a nationalist textbook for primary schools. But given the general level of hype and soppiness it duly won eight Oscars including Best Picture. Congratulations, then, and the Hans Andersen Award to Don Jardine, Emanuel Levy and Jeremy Heilman who all said, in various obscure outlets, what a lousy film it was.

A more complicated comparison would be with James Mangold's 2005 film, Walk the Line, about another dodgy singer, Johnny Cash. This is a good film, with some excellent performances, but it is a poorer film than Dahan's precisely because it tries to be a portrait and a biopic and falls between two stools to some degree. (I know I don't go to the movies, but if you have a family and a DVD and ride on aeroplanes you end up seeing them all anyway.)

A version of public choice theory must be used to understand what critics are and why they are so silly. (This is an Allison family theory rather than a Lincoln Allison solo effort since my sons have more developed ideas and a more developed irritation in this field than I do.) If you are an opera critic you live and die - and your career is justified - on the premise that opera is very important. Which it isn't.

The problem with all the critics is and must be that they take their specialised medium too seriously and assess it as if it has profound aims and objectives which it couldn't possibly have. Films are visual; they do propaganda and emotion; they do not do history and philosophy. You should no more go to La Vie to learn about Piaf than you should go to Macbeth to mug up for your Scottish history ordinaries (or whatever they now call them). But the film might inspire you to read. I will forego the obvious conclusion to this argument which is that there should be no specialist critics, but only one all-purpose critic of everything and his name should be . . . .

The last fifteen minutes of La Vie are a collage of incidents from Piaf's life which culminate in the poor old crone - she is forty-something, but looks eighty - staggering on stage to belt out what, under the circumstances, must be the daftest sentiments anyone has ever belted out. But this is not logic or moral philosophy; it is cinema and popular music. And it is magnificent! Make sure that you see it.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.


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I haven't seen the picture, and don't plan to. I have an old VHS tape of Piaf herself and her cronies from the old days that appears to be better than this "re-creation".

A couple of questions: Why is a "biopic" inherently bad film?

How can anyone who knows anything about Piaf and her life characterize her as a "tiny, frightened woman"? Good God. That's probably the worst misinterpretation I've ever run across. She was as strong as steel. I never heard of any evidence that she was ever frightened of anyone or anybody.

That VHS tape, by the way, has the original interview of Piaf after the Leplee murder, where she tries to explain away her squealing to the cops. Of course, in those days in France, they didn't deal in Miranda warnings and kid-glove treatment of suspects. She might actually have been frightened then, I suppose. And thanks for revealing that Depardieu played Leplee. I hate that actor.

Posted by: Robert Speirs at August 3, 2007 01:49 PM
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Thank you for the piece about Olivier Dahan's 'La Vie en Rose' and specifically your thoughts on Marion Cotillard's portrayal.

I went to this picture Friday with no prior knowledge of the film other than what was in the LIngs Forum Cinema's brochure, which did not say much at all (Lings Forum, Northampton, an jewel of an independent cinema). I was blown away. I was obviously aware that anything concerning Piaf was going to be emotionally charged but I was so stunned by the performance that I had to go a secind night just to check out my responses.

Yes, the film is sentimental, chronologically jumpy and leaves out a lot of Piaf's life and loves, but the power of the film overcomes this and by the end I am overwhelmed by the emotional kick of the whole.

Marion Cotillard's performance must be recognised by the film industry as one of the finest intense character performances on film of all time irrespective of the overall impressions of the film in its entirety.

Mind you, I thought it was visually and aurally stunning too.

I cannot understand why I have not heard about this film before but now anyone i know will certainly be told about it.

Thanks for your article above I found it very useful.

Chris Dilworth, Northampton

Posted by: Chris Dilworth at August 5, 2007 09:52 AM
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