The French singer (played here by Marion Cotillard) was a national icon. Possessed of a voice at once extraordinarily transportive and painfully delicate, Piaf rose from poverty in 1915 Belleville to become the bright light of concert halls from the Paris Olympia to Carnegie Hall. She gained still more fame during World War II by supporting the French resistance. Piaf was a friend to Yves Montand, Jean Cocteau and Maurice Chevalier until her death of cancer in 1963.
In the quintessential definition of what it means to be an artist, the "Little Sparrow" undoubtedly suffered for her art, which produced such classics as the film's title and "La Vie, L'Amour."
A gutter snipe even among gutter snipes, Piaf is introduced in director Olivier Dahan's extraordinarily moving portrait as abject and crying – a small child with wide blue eyes and a face pocked with lesions. Piaf is left on the streets by her mother, who sings for pocket change to support her drinking. Piaf ultimately is rescued from her alcoholic mother before being dropped off by her father at his own mother's Normandy brothel.
For a child this peripheral, Piaf's new home in a village whorehouse is like an entry into paradise, one of the many dichotomies that define this richly textured, emotionally complicated film. Now the center of attention, she is the beloved pet of these similarly abject women, particularly embraced by Titine (an absolutely heart-wrenching Emmanuelle Seigner, wife of director Roman Polanksi). A prostitute for whom the little girl seems to represent an alternate, respectable way of life, Titine clings to Piaf like a rag doll.
It is a reflection of Dahan's portrait of habitual poverty and the undoubted influence of such events in Piaf's life that even this tangential (and invented) character haunts the totality of La Vie en Rose. Titine represents the kind of woman devoured by the same slums and marginalized life that might have swallowed Piaf.
Titine is just one of the many people who enter Piaf's life only to be violently taken from her. La Vie en Rose moves in an impressionistic fashion, from Piaf's childhood to her teenage years, to decrepitude and then back again to adulthood, that remarkable journey through time ably conveyed in a brilliant performance by Cotillard (Big Fish, A Good Year).
Dahan's direction is stunning and as attentive to tone as to sophisticated film technique. He is able to render the emotional elasticity of Piaf's life from ecstasy to tragedy. Despite a structure some have called muddled, Dahan deftly conveys the continuum of Piaf's life and how the past continued to haunt her even into old age. Like the very best biographies, La Vie en Rose is emotionally comprehensive even if it has not represented some of the most important moments in Piaf's chock-filled life.
With his painter's training, Dahan shows his best licks in a succession of evocative set pieces in 1940s New York, where Piaf meets her greatest love, boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins). Dahan is as apt to draw from the lonely reveries captured in Edward Hopper's paintings as he is from the astounding wide-screen compositions and richly textured ambiance of early Bernardo Bertolucci and Stanley Kubrick.
Through Dahan's lens, vintage New York is as self-referentially conventionalized and romantic as a Warner Bros. melodrama, with perky lunch-counter jockeys serving mile-high pastrami sandwiches against a backdrop of twinkling skyscrapers. It is a vision of America seen not only through French, but through a cineaste's eyes – an America defined by its movies, both chirpy and scrappy, romantic and gritty.
Dahan and his remarkable star, the 31-year-old Cotillard, make Piaf not one-dimensionally beautiful but true to the times and the woman herself, with those surprised eyebrows painted onto her forehead and the tragically stooped posture of a D.W. Griffith heroine.
As hunched and devastated-looking in her mid-40s as a 90-year-old – her thinning hair a sad halo of carrot-orange fluff – it is often easy to forget it is the same Cotillard playing Piaf.
Though ripped from a succession of loving arms, Piaf was also surrounded by a devoted group of friends. At various moments in the film, Piaf clasps her hands in prayer, remembering the St. Theresa who rescued her from childhood blindness. The gesture is an indication of her enduring faith in darkest despair, her belief in love and how the hopefulness of childhood never left her.
Despite its story of suffering that comes in unceasing waves, La Vie en Rose may be the most hopeful film yet made about the grueling rigor of living.