Je ne regrette rien
This evening, I watched Olivier Dahan’s biopic of Édith Piaf, La Môme (La Vie en Rose outside its native France), and I have to confess I found the experience to be a bit like eating at one of those nouveau cuisine restaurants: the meal was impeccably designed and very artistically arranged on the plate, but it left me unsatisfied.
I know more or less who Édith Piaf was, but none of the specifics. After watching the film, I can’t say I know any more about her than I did before. Oh, I know she grew up in a brothel, that she was a heavy drinker, that she had an affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan… I can recite all manner of factoids about her life, but I can’t tell you anything about Édith Piaf the person, or what made her tick. Part of the problem, I think, is that this is less a sustained narrative and more a series of unconnected vignettes from various stages in her life. I suppose that is, to some extent, unavoidable when you’re making a biopic, particularly one which attempts to span the duration of the subject’s life, but I suspect more could have been done to give the various events depicted greater meaning. Why does it matter, for instance, that she spent her formative years in a brothel, or that she was briefly her father’s assistant at the circus, or that her first manager was murdered by mobsters and she herself was initially suspected of involvement? None of it gives the impression of adding to our understanding of the character, and, when the credits began to roll, I ultimately found myself wondering “So what?”
Would it all have made more sense if I had had a stronger knowledge of Édith Piaf before going into the film? Perhaps, but, in that case, I would still feel that the film had failed to convey the essence of the character. I’m a big believer in films having to hold up on their own merits rather than requiring any external baggage to be brought to the table. If having additional external knowledge about a person or an event enhances your appreciation for a film, so much the better, but if a lack of prior insight prevents the film from coming together as a cohesive whole, as I suspect is the case here, then I believe the filmmakers haven’t done their jobs properly. Olivier Dahan is undeniably skilled behind the camera, as the film is absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, and I feel that he and cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata were overlooked at the BAFTAs and Oscars (Nagata, did, however, bag himself a César), failing to garner even a nomination in that category. He also extorts fine performances from his cast, in particularly (and most obviously) Marion Cotillard in the role of Piaf, but I get the sense that, at a basic level, the script itself is the loose thread in this tapestry.
As a point of comparison, another film released in 2007 that I recently watched was Across the Universe. For those who don’t know, Across the Universe is a musical set at the time of the Vietnam war, its soundtrack comprised entirely of Beatles songs. Now, the thing is - and this is going to reveal just how pop culture unaware I am - I assumed they were original compositions for the film. I didn’t realise they were Beatles songs until they started singing All You Need is Love… and the only reason I knew that wasn’t an original composition was because I’d previously heard elements of it in Moulin Rouge! The point I’m trying to make with this little detour is that I completely missed the point of the film, and yet was still hugely entertained by it. It doesn’t matter whether you understand the context of the songs in Across the Universe or not: they’re enjoyable in their own right, and the plot and characters are engaging enough to captivate you from start to finish.
You don’t get that with La Môme. Instead, the impression I get is that we, the audience, are being fed a whole lot of moments from a person’s life and left to work out their significance (if indeed there is any significance to them - it is a biopic, after all, and as such is largely limited to portraying what really happened, and what really happened doesn’t necessarily mean anything) without any attention being paid to whether or not a layman will be able to make anything of them. Maybe I’m not the target audience, but I do tend to think you should be able to enjoy a film without having any prior knowledge of the subject matter.
So, in the end, what we have is a very nicely shot film, coupled with an extremely impressive (and deservedly award-winning) performance from Cotillard, who transforms herself in the truest sense of the word. (One of my co-workers told me he couldn’t believe it when he saw her arriving on stage to collect her Oscar, as, until that point, he had no idea of what she actually looked like.) It’s not just hair and make-up, though: it’s a truly brilliant piece of acting that doesn’t even feel like a performance. (I do think it’s a shame, though, that her singing was dubbed over with Piaf’s. It detracts from the realism, and apparently her own singing, briefly heard in various behind the scenes pieces, was pretty impressive in its own right.) La Môme is worth seeing for that reason alone, but as a whole, it’s an uneven and often frustrating piece of work.