MARION COTILLARD has been praised for channeling the legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf all but supernaturally in “La Vie en Rose.” She does nothing of the sort. Much more interesting than that, this Oscar nominee for best actress is a conduit to Piaf.
Sure, makeup makes a modern actress look uncannily like a great French chanteuse from an earlier generation. Cotillard expertly mimics Piaf’s gestures, at least the ones we know from what was caught on camera in the singer’s movie appearances, filmed concerts and interviews. Maybe Piaf was as childish as Cotillard portrays her, although I doubt it. The singer probably could be as hysterical.
But none of this explains Cotillard’s incandescent performance or her fabulous musicality. Any halfway decent actress should know how to sensationalize the tawdry biographical details as they are presented in this flawed but still mesmerizing film. Others could undoubtedly lip-sync as convincingly as Cotillard does. That, though, is small ambition.
In a brief featurette on the film’s DVD release, director Olivier Dahan says he recognized Piaf’s eyes in the actress. Cotillard’s eyes are, in fact, Cotillard’s eyes. Her great acting is with them, if not necessarily through them. Dahan trains his camera on her irises and doesn’t let go. But however ravishing, they are pathways to nowhere, certainly not to Piaf’s soul. Instead they see the world around them, which then seems, through them, perfectly marvelous.
Cotillard’s onlooker’s eyes, when she portrays Piaf’s performances on stage, reflect the theater -- the audience, the ushers, the worn velvet of the seats. Cotillard doesn’t need to sing with her eyes; looking with them is enough.
And listening. This is where the awe comes in. Through her own deep gaze, Cotillard uses her eyes the way Piaf used her voice.
That voice was basically a documentary instrument. Piaf did not try to sound beautiful. She went to great effort, instead, to sound real. She knew what a money note was, and she knew how to blow her wad when she wanted to. But she was most amazing deadpan, letting her voice wryly reveal the life around her.
Piaf’s best songs are her songs about Paris, not about herself. They work best not as narratives but as aural descriptions. Her exaggerated rolled Rs, for instance, became the percussion of clinked glasses in the cafe. She presented the exhilaration of raw experience.
Piaf could be pathetic. She was proud and sad, and proud to be sad (which is a great way to sing but not such a hot way to live your life). In her relationships, Piaf fell in love easily and never well. But she loved her audience fervently. You never sense that she is singing to you personally -- her personal life was too much a disaster for that. Rather, she addresses us collectively.
Cotillard clearly captures this. We watch her watch. We see, in her eyes, the crowd. But she is looking at us, reflecting us in love with Piaf’s song. She may not be Piaf, but Cotillard, in a brilliant stoke, turns us into Piaf’s audience of ardent admirers.
Swed is The Times’ classical music critic.