Monday, March 31, 2008

Cotillard comes up roses

Even before the Oscars, my friend John was raving about Marion Cotillard's turn as French singer Edith Piaf in the biographical movie La Vie En Rose. He kept urging me to go watch it, but since it didn't show in any local cinemas, and I didn't have the DVD yet at the time, I couldn't oblige him. When Cotillard snatched the Best Actress Oscar from Julie Christie, who truly wowed me in Away From Her, I was taken by surprise, but it also made me all the more curious to see La Vie. Last weekend, I finally got my chance. The verdict? John was so right.

Portraying Edith Piaf, Marion Cotillard is absolutely riveting. It's not just the impressive job the makeup artists did transforming the sexy screen siren into the ungainly chanteuse (for which they also won an Oscar). Cotillard assumes the erratic, melodramatic, tragic, larger-than-life persona of Piaf to perfection, from her stooped stance to her shuffling walk to her theatrical hand gestures to her mournful facial expressions. Perhaps I found her performance so amazing because because I'm not that familiar with Piaf (apart from some of her songs), or because before this film Cotillard was not that well-known an actress, so I didn't identify her with any previous roles. But as this YouTube video shows, the likeness is really quite remarkable. More than the physical aspects of Piaf though, Cotillard managed to capture the raw emotion and heartbreaking fragility of a woman who went from ragged street urchin to troubled teen to mercurial celebrity. As France's singing sensation,
La Môme Piaf ("The Little Sparrow")
led a volatile lifestyle fueled by alcohol, drugs, and passionate love affairs, surrounded by people who adored her and treated her like a diva. Yet Cotillard conveys the sense that there was a profound loneliness about Piaf. Her most moving scenes are those depicting an older Piaf, whose deteriorating health starts to show and threatens to halt her career. When Piaf faints on stage during a concert, then insists on returning to sing one more song, only to collapse again, Cotillard makes one feel her agony, both physical and emotional, and her pitying desperation in clinging to the music that has been her salvation from the cruelties of her tumultuous life.

Just as Walk the Line and Ray succeeded in faithfully and compellingly telling the stories of music legends Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, respectively, La Vie En Rose is a loving but bare-bones tribute to the French songbird Edith Piaf. For someone whose voice was full of soul and beauty, her life was marked with intense melancholy and pain, and thanks to the tres magnifique Marion Cotillard, the paradox of Piaf can be seen not in hues of rosy pink, but in far more complex and mesmerizing shades of gray.


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