Passion, souland a grand set of pipes distinguish many great singers, and, in the biopic “La Vie en Rose,” French chanteuse Edith Piaf, as embodied by the superb actress playing her, delivers those assets supremely. The movie’s an imperfect spectacle, but the tiny woman with the gigantic voice keeps it dazzling as she plunges into, and belts out, her life with both grit and majesty.
The last thing Edith Piaf needs is standard rags-to-riches treatment, and, in that arena, writer-director Olivier Dahan (“The Promised Life”) and cowriter Isabelle Sobelman serve up an ambitious assemblage of incidents and impressions rather than a cohesive portrait of the artist and icon. Numerous traumas and a few thrills punctuate their jump-around chronicle, which takes us from Edith’s childhood in 1918 to the death of the celebrated singer in 1963 at age 47.
Over the course of things, Edith (Marion Cotillard) is abandoned by her parents in Paris and raised in a brothel. She becomes temporarily blind. She sings on the streets. She’s accused of murdering Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), the impresario who discovered her and renamed her Piaf (“little sparrow”). She attains stardom. She falls in love with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), who dies in a plane crash. She loses a child. She develops a morphine habit.
Detail-packed, the film can feel untidy and overloaded, and, despite a 140-minute running time, significant ingredients get shortchanged. But even more notable is that this picture holds together, period. In fact, it’s an absorbing melange of people and places that shape its hard-living heroine’s lifetime.
Credit goes to Dahan’s ability to achieve emotional truth in nearly every scenario (an exception being a religious pilgrimage that possibly cures Edith’s childhood blindness). And crucial to that accomplishment is Cotillard (“A Very Long Engagement”). There’s no substitute for depth in an actor, and Cotillard has it. Supplying Edith with acoarse splendor and a resounding soul, she’s convincing whether playing a frightened street teen or a dying diva. This is one of the most spectacular portrayals of a real-life music icon ever recorded.
La Vie en Rose ***
Starring Marion Cotillard, Jean-Pierre Martins, Sylvie Testud, Gerard Depardieu
Written by Olivier Dahan, Isabelle Sobelman
Directed by Olivier Dahan
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes