La Vie est Instable: Narrative Structure and Restructuring in LA VIE EN ROSE
26 May 2013
Edith Piaf is not the easiest woman to capture in a biographical film; her life is almost too unbelievable, even for the movies. Nevertheless, director and screenwriter Oliver Dahan and fellow screenwriter Isabelle Sobelman attempted to capture Piaf’s story in their 2007 film, La Vie en Rose, tag-lined “The life story of singer Edith Piaf.” While the unconventional, nonlinear narrative structure of the film clearly aligns with the instability and, at times, pandemonium of Piaf’s life, the moments of the singer’s life the film chooses to include, and, through that inclusion, the significance the film asserts on these moments, creates a moving montage to a legend, but a montage as unreliable and rough as Piaf herself.
To begin, the film’s nonlinear narrative structure jumps about Piaf’s life. The film opens with Piaf’s (Marion Cotillard) 1959 New York concert. Piaf’s singing is cross-cut with paramedics arriving at the venue and told “she” collapsed onstage. The film is immediately playing with time. Clearly the audience sees Piaf has not yet collapsed; she is singing brilliantly for the masses. And, by the time the audience actually sees her collapse there is a jump, a jump into the past, leaving the fallout from her sudden fainting spell for a later time in the film. With this jump, the audience is transported into Piaf’s childhood where she is raised by her paternal grandmother in a brothel. This opening is abrupt, and therefore somewhat jarring; time is not continuous and jumps can and will take the audience anywhere, anytime.
With each jump the audience must work on assembling the puzzle that is La Vie en Rose’s interpretation of Piaf’s life. Put another way, with each jump the audience must deduce where they have landed, what age Piaf is, and how this new moment, this figurative piece, fits into the puzzle of her life. However, eventually it becomes clear these jumps are not without logic. Although the jumps seem impulsive and unstable, they aligns with the Piaf captured in the film; she is as unpredictable and reckless as the jumps themselves. La Vie en Rose’s Piaf lives her life each moment at a time, never looking too far in the future, and celebrating, typically with alcohol, the present. The jumps symbolize exactly that.
Yet, even though these jumps are a symbolically useful way for the film to communicate Piaf’s life, they don’t jump to each moment of the singer’s known history, and what the film chooses to include and chooses to omit are other interesting points of consideration in La Vie en Rose. Obviously when shrinking a life down into a 2 hour 15 minute film some details will be cut. However, which details deemed important enough to shape the narrative and which were omitted is the interesting part. What is captured, for example, are the countless concerts of Piaf’s career. Thus, the voice and its emergence and refinement are evidently significant to the Piaf La Vie en Rose creates. Logical, as the film’s title references one of Piaf’s songs. Clearly, this is not a film about Edith Piaf, the woman; this is a film about Edith Piaf, the legendary French songbird. Moreover, the film never shies away from Piaf’s temper or eccentricity. In the film, outbursts are also a major element to Piaf’s character. According to the film, the songs and the outbursts primarily define Piaf; relative to everything else in the film, talent and tantrums are Edith Piaf.
Although mystery shrouds Piaf, there are clearly elements of the singer’s life intentionally omitted from the film. One of the bonds the film omits from its biography of Piaf’s life is her relationship with other artists in 1940s and 1950s France, specifically her connection to writer/artist Jean Cocteau (excluding a passing reference the film makes to him attending one of her concerts). Cocteau, a jack of all trades, including the filmmaking trade, was close with Piaf; she even starred in his play turned film Le Bel Indefferent (1940/1953) as she rose into her own fame. In fact, Cocteau’s influence on Piaf likely popularized her status, and his continued support of her work had a hand in keeping her relevant during lulls in her career. True, the film shows Piaf at countless parties, but the film does not show many of Piaf’s close friendships, such as the one with Cocteau. In fact, the film’s Piaf often finds herself completely alone (and intoxicated) in a crowd of people. Moreover, the film’s Piaf is often commanding attention through ostentatious behavior which the revolving door of people around her numbly tolerates. The film intentionally omits key relationships, such as the one with Cocteau, which restricts Piaf’s characterization and narrows the lens through which the cinematic audience knows her.
In the conclusion, during her “last night,” Piaf reflects on her deceased daughter, Marcelle. In a flashback, Piaf seemingly recalls her inadequacies as a mother and her daughter’s premature death from meningitis. Curiously, Marcelle was never mentioned in the film until this brief flashback. This delayed inclusion may suggest a long repressed loss, one so deeply repressed it could not be recalled until her mind, in the final stages of cancer, could allow back into consciousness. That, or the film’s Piaf was so disinterested in her daughter that the first time she felt connected to her was they finally had something in common, death. Yet, the film’s claim that Marcella’s death was repressed by or irrelevant to Piaf until the end is a bold assertion to make. As with Cocteau, the way the film handles Marcella also narrows the lens a cinematic audience has to look at Piaf.
While the jumps the film makes symbolically align with the protagonist the film presents, the protagonist presented is a slanted version of Edith Piaf. True, a lot is unknown about the French songbird. Also true, film, by its very nature, is meant to entertain, not educate. A film, even a biographical film, has not allegiance to historical accuracy. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to watch a biographical film, like La Vie en Rose, and ponder what the film includes about its protagonist’s life and what it omits. To take the a step further, it is also interesting to consider what, of the elements of the person’s life included, did the film define as significant and draw specific attention to. On the surface a biographical film may capture a person’s life; however, digging deeper, a biographical film actually defines how that person and his/her life is viewed.