A Movie Big Enough for the Little Sparrow

Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, singing at microphone

Marion Cotillard vanishes into the persona of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Bruno Calvo/Picturehouse hide caption

itoggle caption Bruno Calvo/Picturehouse

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I remember my mom playing Edith Piaf records when I was a kid — these soaring anthems, vibrant and full of life, in a language I didn't understand, but powerful anyway.

As powerful as that voice was an image my mom gave me. She told me that Piaf had terrible arthritis, that toward the end of her life, she could barely walk, so at concerts they'd place her at the microphone, and then open the curtain. And she'd stand there in a black dress that covered everything but her face and hands. And as that thrilling voice filled the concert hall, those r's rolling in regiments off her tongue, she'd stand rigid and unmoving, and would slowly, painfully, close her hands, and then open them again.

There's no moment quite that dire in La Vie en Rose, but the blend of power and pain my mother was conjuring is everywhere in the film. Piaf's story includes all the usual elements of a singer-biography — and I do mean all of them. She was abandoned by her mother, raised in her grandmother's brothel by whores who adored her, then ripped from their care by a father who didn't. She ended up singing for centimes on the street, which is where she was discovered by a passer-by who owned a cabaret.

There followed all sorts of trials — a baby who died, romances that failed, arthritis that twisted her body, and morphine that twisted her life when she tried to dull the pain. Not to mention musical traumas. Turning a street urchin into a little sparrow takes discipline, and Piaf always resisted discipline.

Turning the gorgeous, willowy French actress Marion Cotillard into homely, tiny Edith Piaf must also have been a struggle. This has to be the most striking uglification of an actress since Charlize Theron in Monster. But it pays off in an entirely persuasive performance. Cotillard makes the screen Piaf coarse, tormented, hollow-eyed, and vibrant, while Olivier Dahan's color-saturated film leaps around in time in ways that are thoroughly disorienting. But sequence somehow seems less and less important as the actress lip-syncs to vintage Piaf recordings, becoming the little sparrow —idolized but unloved, addicted to morphine, and desperately ill — la vie tres tragique, en rose.

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