The course of cultural history requires an angle, some sort of arc that allows us to follow it through neatly. In the current age of music biopics, this point proves particularly true as biographic detail is often stripped threadbare in favour of a linear narrative with a grand culmination.
That is fine in its own way, after all, there is nothing worse than a story not delivering what it set out to. But in a world where Queen’s full Live Aid performance already exists on YouTube at the click of a bottom, I would’ve liked to have seen a few scenes of Freddie Mercury’s wild parties where he sniffed cocaine off of the top of hermaphrodite dwarfs’ heads. In a wild ironic way, it would’ve humanised him beyond the saint that is presented in Bohemian Rhapsody. What’s more, it may well have helped to capture the zeitgeist with a bit more fidelity.
When Edith Piaf came to the fore in the mid-1930s the scene in Europe was alive with sexual liberation and skylarking heathenry the likes of which the gaudy sixties would struggle to hold a candle to. Édith Piaf and the likes had stubbed out the smouldering cares of the past under a sauntering heel and were lighting up the future with a phosphorescent flare of unapologetic bravura.
This is not only beautifully rendered in the vignette of Olivier Dahan’s film La Vie en Rose, but by taking the full scope of Piaf’s life into account, including the conservative austerity of her strife riddle youth, to the troubles of the war to come, he charts the rise and fall of a moment in culture. In doing so, he snatches a tagline that all music biopics should hope for: You don’t have to be an Edith Piaf fan to enjoy this.
Naturally, it helps that Piaf had a wildly colourful life, but that is part of the plan—you have to pick a life that seems to define the times. When the Coen brothers set about tackling the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties they chose to forgo the usual biopic route and chose an unknown protagonist. After all, it would’ve been ridiculous to pick a hero to follow, what would the final act have been? The star winning a lifetime supply of beer and gingham?
The times that Piaf lived through were tempestuous and so was her life. She was embroiled in murder scandals, affairs and a slew of regrettable scrapes. Her life was one that continually met with suffering and hardship which she bore with a shrug of hard-fought resilience and used the power of performance to transfigure into the absolved beauty of music. Songs like, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ see Piaf reach into the ether and seize upon something indefinably vital that she propagated in a soaring career of light and shade – a monochrome existence of sufferance and exultation that was reflected in the war-torn world around her.
This defiant notion is palpable throughout the movie without the narrative ever having to bend to it. Marion Cotillard’s performance achieves much the same, and it is with good reason that in 2010 George Clooney called it the greatest performance of that decade. She embodies the human side of Piaf as well as her ferocious stardom, portraying her duality without it ever seeming like two separate characters. Both Piaf the star, and the person, are bound by vulnerability and fortitude, suffering and exultation, where ultimately her songs offer deliverance.
In telling the tale of Piaf and carefully weaving it within the narrative of her times as opposed to the other way around, we are left with a film that seems more encapsulating than any other biopic of recent times as such it seems more relatable to life, no matter how wildly removed it might be on the surface.
In short, it is a film reminiscent of one of my favourite quotes from the screenwriter and novelist Steve Tesich: “Life, it seems, is not meaningless but, rather, so full of meaning that its meaning must be constantly murdered for the sake of cohesion and comprehension. For the sake of storyline.” By letting the arc flow on the whims of an individual instead of the other way around, La Vie en Rose imparts a true story with a message of universality, and it does it all beautifully and entertainingly to boot.