La Vie en Rose (2007) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Non, je ne Regrette rien

As your average inconsequential movie reviewer, I have seen heaps of musician biography films come and go for more than 20 years, and not many of them can top what is so powerfully achieved in Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose”, which is thankfully re-released in South Korean theaters in this month. Besides being constantly fueled by the absolutely stunning lead performance at its center, the movie also works a rather messy but ultimately dazzling presentation of the complex human personality of its legendary real-life musician, and its many highlights touch me a lot even though more than 10 years have passed since I watched it right before doing a 4-week military training in late 2007.

That real-life musician in question is Édith Piaf (1915-1963), who is still remembered for her indelible performances of various songs such as, yes, “La Vie en Rose”. Considering how Piaf’s life and career were quite dramatic as being full of many ups and downs, it is certainly difficult to compress her tumultuous life and career into one feature film, but the screenplay by Dahan and his co-writer Isabelle Sobelman manages to overcome that as freely hopping among numerous key moments in Piaf’s life via its non-linear narrative. The overall result often feels jarring and confusing at first, but it gradually generates a sort of emotional narrative as the movie focuses more on Piaf’s later years, because this is more or less than the reflection of how old Piaf struggles to regard her life and career before her eventual death.

The early part of the film mainly revolves around Piaf’s unhappy and miserable childhood years. Born to alcoholic parents who did not care much about her, young Piaf, played by Manon Chevallier and then Pauline Burlet, was separated from her street singer mother when her acrobatic father returned from the war and took her to a brothel run by his mother, and then she had to leave that place again when her father later came back several years later. While assisting her father on one day, she comes to demonstrate a bit of her natural singing talent, and that is the humble but significant beginning of her musician career.

Several years later, Piaf, now played by Marion Cotillard, is still on the streets of Paris while earning her meager living day by day via her singing, but then she comes across a local nigh club owner who instantly recognizes her considerable potential. Thanks to him, she gets a chance to show more of her talent at his nightclub, and that catapults her to a quick stardom, and, alas, her usual poor judgment of men around her leads to a devastating throwback to her burgeoning career.

Nevertheless, Piaf eventually makes a triumphant return mainly thanks to the tough tutelage from her new accompanist, and the movie quickly moves forward to her prime period when she had one big success after another in not only France but also US. As she goes for joie de vivre as usual, she finds herself passionately fallen in love with a famous French boxer, and she does not even care much about the fact that he is already married and will probably never leave his wife and children.

These and other good moments in Piaf’s life are freely juggled along with many bad moments in her life, and the striking dramatic contrast resulted from that lets us get to know more about those compelling human contradictions inside Piaf. While she is often quite vulnerable, she is also a tempestuous diva driven by her strong will to perform, and one of the most poignant moments in the film, which still moves me to tears, comes from where she is still determined to perform for her audiences as usual despite her increasingly fragile physical condition. Everyone around her understandably try to dissuade her, but she remains adamant because, as a professional dedicated to her artistic craft, she believes she must not stop no matter what happens.

However, there eventually came a point where Piaf could not possibly go on anymore around 1960. Like Judy Garland, Piaf often depended a lot on alcohol and drugs for many years, and that caused her severe health deterioration during her last several years. Although she was only 48 years old at the time of her death, she looked quite more aged than she actually was, and the later part of the film depicting her painful last years are bitter and devastating before followed by her last hurrah accompanied with “Non je ne regrette rien”, which could have been the title of her memoir if she had written it.

All these and other things in the film are held strongly together by Cotillard’s unforgettable acting, which deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar (The movie also won another well-deserved Oscar for its makeup and hairstyling in addition to being nominated for Best Costume, by the way). Fully embodying many different sides of her character, her electrifying performance deftly swings along her character’s high and low points throughout the film without any misstep, and she also looks quite credible during a number of small and big performance scenes where she gets Piaf’s mannerism absolutely right with her top-notch lip-synching job.

The main weak point of the film lies in a number of various supporting characters who come and go around Piaf. I wonder whether they could be developed more, but that would probably be distracting instead because the movie is intended to be all about Piaf from the beginning. At least, a number of notable French performers including Emmanuelle Seigner, Sylvie Testud, and Gérard Depardieu fill their small spots as much as they can with each own presence, and Jean-Pierre Martins clicks well with Cotillard during several tender scenes between them.

On the whole, “La Vie en Rose” is still a superlative film to be experienced, and its sublime qualities remind me again of how forgettable many recent musician biography flicks are. Here is a movie which wants to do a lot more than merely recreating the life story of its real-life human subject, and I am glad to report that it still shines magnificently even after 15 years.

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