Monday, Dec. 17, 2007

Oscar Worthy Actress

By David Luhrssen
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At her saddest, the voice of Edith Piaf was sorrow itself, intimating that love is a state of unsatisfiable yearning and life is melancholy without end. When she was ebullient, however, Piaf was a bolt of electricity. She was France’s analog to Billie Holiday and like the American jazz singer, led a troubled life and died too young.

One of 2007’s great films, La Vie en Rose, has been released on DVD in a longer version than was seen in theaters. A plausible reconstruction of Piaf’s life, it’s arranged in discrete segments, alternating between her childhood and her later years, moving toward her pinnacle and her decline. Marion Cotillard plays Piaf in triumph and tragedy with the desperate, haunted eyes of a woman who never anticipated much from life and came to live through her songs. As a girl she was snatched by her father from her neglectful mother and given to her grandmother, the madame of a brothel. The women of the house all saw themselves as her auntie, yet she was witness to much degradation. When an infection blinded her, the women brought her to a nearby shrine to St. Therese. Her sight was restored. Piaf’s devotion to this saintly intercessor is a recurring motif of La Vie en Rose, infusing moments of magical realism into the story.

After being discovered singing on the Paris streets by a nightclub owner (Gerard Depardieu), Piaf became the toast of cafe society on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet she never forgot how close the poshest club was to the gutter. Cocaine and booze charged a stiff toll even before a car accident left her addicted to morphine. Director Olivier Dahan filmed La Vie en Rose in gorgeous dark colors and brilliant light and shadow, pushing the visuals to the edge of hyperrealism. At times La Vie en Rose resembles an elaborate stage set, an artificial world against which Piaf played out her painful rise and fall. Cotillard deserves an Oscar nod for her powerful interpretation of the singer.

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