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A Sowbiz Biopic And An Agitprop Drama

By Phil Nugent
Published April 2, 2008

Phil Nugent looks at La Vie En Rose, a cinematic biography of the legendary (and legendarily troubled) French singer Edith Piaf. He also subjects himself to the agitprop African docudrama Bamako.

The 31-year-old actress Marion Cotillard (A Good Year, A Very Long Engagement) plays singer Edith Piaf in the French biopic La Vie En Rose. Piaf died at 47, but she seemed much older when she expired of cancer in 1963—she wrestled with alcoholism, drug addiction, various debilitating illnesses and injuries, as well as a really choice selection of childhood traumas and the loss of the (adulterous) love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, in a plane crash.

Cotillard, who looks enchantingly fresh and sparky in her youthful scenes here, fully takes advantage of the opportunity the role offers to look and act like a wreck. She’s great to watch, especially in the prematurely-middle-aged period where Piaf is too big a star who is too pickled most of the time to care what anybody thinks of her. In America tooling around the desert in a car with a bunch of her drunken friends, she celebrates the smashing up of the car by cackling, “We killed a tree!” and then staggering to the side of the road to strike a thumbs-out hitchhiker’s pose. She’s embarrassing and irresistible to about an equal degree.

Directed by Olivier Dahan, from a script he co-wrote with Isabelle Sobelman, La Vie En Rose fits solidly into the musical biopic genre alongside Ray and Walk The Line as well as such earlier examples as Lady Sings The Blues. (A scene at a recording studio where Piaf references Billie Holiday feels like a deliberate invocation of that movie.) This is an inherently cornball genre, and I’ve already seen a few American reviewers who look to the French to maintain a high degree of cinematic artistry sniff indignantly at the bourgeois tackiness of this enterprise, but this kind of movie can still be a lot of fun when the performances are good and the director doesn’t dawdle. Dahan breaks up the chronology of Piaf’s life by flashing forward and back, which enables him to keep jumping from one high point to another, and he brings the members of the supporting cast—which includes Gerard Depardieu, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Catherine Allegret, Jean-Pierre Martins as Cerdan, and Caroline Sihol as Marlene Dietrich—on in relays. La Vie En Rose may not be great art, but as good entertainment, it’s not half bad.

At the opposite extreme from La Vie En Rose, we have Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako, which is strictly for people who like their political art to taste mediciney. The setting is a courtyard in the title location, the capital city of Mali, where an outdoor tribunal has been convened. The assembled legal mouthpieces take turns making speeches weighing the culpability of the IMF and the World Bank in the economic desolation of Africa, evidence of which we can see going on at the edges of the action, if “action” is really the right word for it. For most of the movie’s running time (which falls five minutes short of two hours), we could be watching C-SPAN, were it not for the camera’s roving eye.

There’s also a brief ironic interlude when the speeches are interrupted for a spaghetti-western style gundown, for which one of the film’s executive producers, Danny Glover, was persuaded to squeeze into his cowboy outfit from Silverado. This is meant to provide some perspective on the actual atrocities the tribunal is trying to pin on the forces of globalization, but it also serves as a rebuke to some of us in the audience. It’s as if the director is saying, you probably think you’re politically engaged because you dragged your lazy butt out to the AÔssata Tall Sall, William Bourdon and Assa Badiallo Souko in Bamako theater tonight, but what are you doing the rest of the week? Are you more likely to be found out in the streets, screaming for revolution, or zoned out in front of the action channel? Is there not some part of you that would rather watch these silly actors pretend to shoot up the place<