Though movie stars generally dominate the celluloid vehicles in which they appear, it's relatively rare that an actor transforms a run-of-the-mill movie into something well-nigh unforgettable.
But that's the case with La Vie en Rose, a biopic about legendary French singer Edith Piaf. If Hollywood can stifle its usual xenophobia, then Marion Cotillard, who gives the galvanic performance at this film's center, will have a well-deserved Best Actress nomination next spring.
I have only a few slight impressions of the real Piaf's work, and in that I guess I'm not alone. Though the European megastar attempted to crack the American market—the movie includes a number of scenes in New York and California—she never really succeeded. But perhaps that had something to do with the fact that we had our own Piaf equivalent: Judy Garland.
The parallels between the two singers are striking. Both had vocal powers so out of proportion with their slight, bird-like frames that the imbalance conceivably hastened their declines. Both were still in their 40s when they died in the 1960s, but seemed superannuated. More than mere entertainers, both were icons of a romantic-tragic sensibility that provoked an intense, quasi-religious identification from many admirers.
As La Vie en Rose shows, Piaf's early life might have been conjured by a 19th-century novelist. Born during World War I in the Paris district of Belleville, to a café-singer mother and a street-acrobat father, she spent much of her childhood in a Normandy brothel run by her grandmother. Though writer-director Olivier Dahan thankfully doesn't go in for any heavy-handed psychologizing, these early scenes skillfully set the stage for a life story full of reversals and emotional extremes.
In the mid-1930s, she's back in Paris singing in the street when she's spotted by impresario Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu). The nightclub that Leplée owns—one of numerous locales brought to fevered, teeming life by production designer Olivier Raoux—draws both upper-class and lower-class patrons, a convergence that allows Piaf to begin making the transition from demimonde to high society, and from entertainer to artiste (and, eventually, revered national icon).
But nothing comes easy, or without real-life melodrama: After Leplée is found murdered, Piaf has to struggle to emerge from a cloud of suspicion before she can continue her ascent.
Like virtually every biopic these days, La Vie en Rose scrambles chronology wantonly. (Oh, for a cinematic biography that starts at birth and ends at death!) Within this helter-skelter structure, some of the choices Dahan makes are curious. Piaf's circle of intimates included Jean Cocteau, Maurice Chevalier, Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour, none of whom appears in the story. Even odder, the singer famously saved lives with her daring support of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation, yet the film elides World War II entirely.
It's almost as if Dahan shot a four-hour film, or a mini-series for French TV, and the 140-minute movie released in America was extracted from that. I understand that's not the case, however, and that Dahan's choices reflect a desire to steer away from the facts of Piaf's public life in order to articulate a more intimate interior odyssey.
Thus, though Piaf was married twice, we get barely a hint of matrimony in her life. Love, for her, takes the magnificent form of middleweight boxing champ Marcel Cerdan (well played by Jean-Pierre Martins), who refuses to leave his wife and six children for Piaf but gives her a grand passion surpassing any other. The scenes of their romance in 1940s New York and her devastated reaction to his death, in a 1949 air crash, are among the movie's most vivid and compelling passages.
They also form an emotional crux of sorts. One remarkable aspect of Cotillard's bravura performance is how it captures Piaf's physical transformation. Before Cerdan, and in his arms, she has the glow and vivacity of youth. After his demise (and a 1951 car accident that left her addicted to morphine), she seems to age 30 or 40 years in a mere 14. When she dies in 1963, she looks to be in her 70s rather than her 40s.
Yet, remarkably, this striking deterioration did not equate with artistic decline. On the contrary, Piaf during the 1950s and into the '60s continued to grow and blossom as a singer, giving stunning concerts and recording extraordinary songs, including the life-summarizing "Non, je ne regrette rien."
In a sense, the mounting contrast between the singer's physical fragility and emotive power explains why her story reaches beyond the mere career ups and downs of most biopics, toward the resonant significance of allegory: It testifies to the essential difference of body and spirit, and the final primacy of the latter. Indeed, when we see her on stage during the last few years of her life, her singing—rendered by Cotillard lip-synching to Piaf recordings—draws the audience into a kind of magical communion, a connection in which Piaf seems to channel the life force itself.
Whether or not this is the role Cotillard was born to play, she plays it with a conviction and a dexterity that make Piaf one of the most indelible characters in recent screen history. One needn't have been a fan of the singer to be riveted by the work of this superb actress.
La Vie en Rose opens Friday in select theaters.
Linda Riss was a 20-year-old beauty in 1957 when Burt Pugach, age 32, spotted her in a Bronx park. He was a flashy, ambulance-chasing lawyer who'd been involved in making a movie and owned an airplane and a nightclub. Instantly smitten, he set out to woo her, and did a pretty good job of it until she found out he was married with a child. [Warning: Spoilers follow.]
Irked by her deceptive suitor, Linda became engaged to another guy. Enraged, and determined that no man would have her if he couldn't, Burt hired a thug who rang Linda's doorbell and threw lye in her face when she answered, disfiguring her and leaving her nearly blind.
The 1959 crime made headlines that continued through Burt's arrest, trial and conviction. If the story of Linda and Burt had ended there, director Dan Klores surely would never have made the documentary Crazy Love about it. But, unlike most, this tabloid tale not only had a ghoulish first act, it had a surprising second and third act too.
In Act 2, the seeing-impaired—but still gorgeous—Linda tours the world looking for love and security which elude her, while Burt becomes a crusading jailhouse lawyer who survives the lethal siege at New York's Attica prison. Upon release, he resumes his pursuit of Linda—and, astonishingly, wins her hand. In Act 3, Burt's shenanigans continue to land him in hot water, but he and Linda forge a marriage that seems composed of equal parts bickering, co-dependency and a bizarre, soul-level affinity.
Crazy Love is one of those documentaries that constructs its narrative almost entirely through interviews, and the subjects here include not only Burt and Linda (interviewed separately, she wearing a pair of her ever-present sunglasses) but also their friends and family members, as well as outside commentators such as newspaperman Jimmy Breslin.
Formally, then, the film has little to distinguish it from lots of TV true-crime documentaries. But it is tightly woven and its copious use of pop songs from the period evokes an America of big-finned cars and movie-magazine dreams. Still, its cultural fascinations only form an alluring backdrop to the main event: the strange history of Burt and Linda, as recounted by the protagonists themselves.
It is like a train wreck that lasts nearly 40 years, and we watch for the same reason that all such gruesome spectacles compel attention: It tells us not of other people's horrors but of our own deepest fears. We want love to be transcendent and ennobling. Burt and Linda tell us it can be delusional and absurd. Worse, visiting us from a world of big wigs and fake furs, they seem to wink at us as they deliver the news.
Let us not forget to thank them for the service they provide. If America ever needed an antidote to the toxins of cheap romance, the purgatorial, unforgettably odd marriage of Burt and Linda is surely it.
Crazy Love ends Thursday.