Traditional French culture seems to float in a scented bath of beauty and joie de vivre, so that people love, eat, drink, whine, cheat and betray one another, and occasionally commit crimes of passion within a hovering atmosphere of timeless sensuality and existential rectitude (now there’s an interesting phrase) that renders the particular events being depicted somewhat inconsequential, no matter how germane they may be to life or the development of the plot. The pervasive charm of the whole trumps the moral implications of the storyline, and the message is always the same: C’ est la Vie. We like the wine, the fresh bread, the streets of Paris, the rows of poplars leading up the drive to the country estate, and the commanding logic of l‘ Amour, which, for good or ill, obliterates everything in its path.
In recent decades—to judge from the films they’re putting out—the French seem to have lost their charm. No sooner are these words out of my mouth, however, than I’m reminded of Joyeux Noel, a truly charming French film about trench warfare. So all is not yet lost. Yet the trend is marked, and the latest French blockbuster, La Vie en Rose, only serves to confirm it.
Now, everyone ought to have an Edith Piaf record. (The question is, Does anyone need two?) Though her signature numbers tend to be a little strident, they evoke the atmosphere of Parisian cabaret life during the inter-war years, which is when Piaf rose to prominence as a popular entertainer. None of us were alive then, but it’s easy to appreciate the romantic, nostalgic, bitter-sweet and also hard-edged flavor of the music, and Piaf’s voice has no rivals in its power to get the mood across. There is enough crisp energy in a single one of her rolled “r”s to shatter glass, and her vibrato is so tight you could hang your wash out to dry on it. Piaf was only 4 ft 8 (the little sparrow, you know) and yet she could belt out melodies with remarkable intensity. No one who knows her music, I think, would hesitate call it “great.”
Yet alongside the music, there is also the Piaf myth. She was raised in the street, in a brothel, in a circus. She was “discovered,” she wowed chic and wealthy Parisians with her expressive power. She became famous, performed in America, was on Ed Sullivan eight times, and along the way became an icon of her own nation, like Amelia Rodriguez in Portugal or Frank Sinatra (?) in the United States. Yet through it all she retained the impulsiveness of her lowly origins (Good for her!) became addicted to morphine, frequently spat on her patrons and benefactors, and burned out at the tender age of 47.
At any rate, that is the story we receive from La Vie en Rose, which is a strange and unsatisfying film, in which Piaf comes across as an egotistical maniac. Why is there no mention of her (often successful) efforts on behalf of French prisoners during WWII, or her contributions to the fledgling careers of Yves Montand or Charles Avnesvour? On the other hand, Piaf’s affair with the Moroccan boxer Marcel Cerdan is elevated here to a position of Olympian devotion, “The love of her life!” yet she had so many affairs during the course of her career that no one could count them up. Piaf’s artistry always seems to take a back seat to her brash and arbitrary personal whims, though the film does underscore how important song-writers were to her success. And far too much time is devoted to her final years, when she was worn out and ill—she died of cancer. In fact, the director, Olivier Dahan, handles the many time-shifts as if he had just been watching The Great Train Robbery (1903) rather than Citizen Kane.
In short, Edith Piaf was a far more interesting and attractive figure than the one being presented to us here. Yet like most bio-pics of musicians, La Vie en Rose, for all its shabbiness, does holds our interest. There is always the next song, the next insult, the next overdose. A more sympathetic portrait, and a better film, is Claude Lelouch’s Edith and Marcel. And an excellent documentary was released in 1999 or thereabouts. I have a copy on VHS if you want to borrow it.