Piaf was a brawling mess who parlayed the pain she wore on her sleeve into a glittering career as France's heartbreak balladeer. To this day her gravel voice thrills me, but she was also a rabid self-mythologizer who liked to play up her childhood travails. An unblushing fan, writer-director Olivier Dahan has bought the package and added a myth or two of his own, cooking up a fictional warmhearted tart (Emmanuelle Seigner) who nurses little orphan Edith through a period of temporary blindness (unconfirmed) and drums up sufficient funds to dispatch the child on a pilgrimage, where Saint Theresa provides a miracle cure that Dahan hands us without so much as a cocked eyebrow.
La Vie En Rose trudges dutifully from one costumed "defining" event to the next, building to a kind of Piaf theme park that plays out like a bad parody of Dickens or Balzac. Slack-jawed proles wearing artistically grimy faces drop everything to gawk as the tiny waif belts out "The Marseillaise" on a street corner, followed by copious shots of rapt and bejeweled audiences in Paris' cavernous Olympia Hall as Piaf, discovered by a Svengali nightclub owner played by Gerard Depardieu, finds the voice and the style that seal her phenomenal success.
Quite aside from her towering vocal range and forcefulness as a populist interpreter of the French chanson, Piaf was an instinctive social leveler (she hobnobbed with Cocteau, but the love of her life, played as a sweet-tempered lug in the movie by Jean-Pierre Martins, was a married middleweight boxer and pig farmer) who became a unifying romantic voice for war-torn France. But there remains the murkier and still unresolved question of whether Piaf, along with her pal Maurice Chevalier, was a collaborator who happily performed for Nazi military bigwigs during the Occupation or a clandestine protector of the French Resistance. Reluctant to muddy his diva with complication, Dahan sticks with neurosis, focusing on the often yawning chasm between the terrified child and the grandstanding diva.
Cotillard doesn't do her own singing -- who, after all, could replicate the soaring rasp that burst fully formed out of that tiny body? In a sense, every scene in La Vie En Rose is a holding pattern for the next ballad, which would reduce the movie to a musical, were it not for Cotillard's command of character. Though she's far prettier than Piaf at any age and has to be heavily made up to come close to the bug-eyed jolie-laide that was la Môme, Cotillard not only has her fluttery mannerisms down, but the fragile sense of self that kept her always on the edge. With shoulders hunched, head tipped, and hands flung forward, Cotillard gives us a Piaf stranded between the mutinous child she never fully outgrew and the crowd-pleasing supplicant who could never get enough audience love. If Piaf was an empty shell, she knew how to put on a show, on and off stage. Channeling the shell, the performer, and the shambles in between, Cotillard raises France's poor, beloved chanteuse clean out of mundane pathos into the ruined grandeur she deserves.