Dir: Olivier Dahan. Fr-UK-Czech Rep. 2006. 140mins.
The biopic is a genre that the French film-makers have rarely shown much aptitude for, being the kind of (usually costly) project the British and Americans do better. But producer Alain Goldman and writer-director Olivier Dahan largely succeed with La Vie En Rose, a vigorous and flamboyant life of singer Edith Piaf that should be a standard setter for future European productions.
It is colorfully melodramatic in the best sense of the word, boasts a soundtrack full of Piaf's most electrifying tunes and, most of all, showcases the growing talents of its star, Marion Cotillard.
Co-produced by leading French private channel TF1, La Vie En Rose opened the Berlinale, where immediate international exposure should speed it to markets beyond France (opens February 14). Given Piaf's status as one of the iconic popular artists of the 20th century, it should find an audience in most major markets.
La Vie En Rose is not the first screen evocation of Piaf's life. In 1983, Claude Lelouch made Edith And Marcel, which dealt with Piaf's tragic romance with middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan.
Dahan dramatises the same material but improves on Lelouch in every way. In the film's most impressive technical achievement, a haunting five-minute sequence symbolises how Piaf channeled the heartbreak of her life into her art.
The script synthesises many of the key episodes of Piaf's life but, as with biopics, much falls by the wayside. There is the usual fudging and pruning of chronology and events: Piaf's controversial career during the German Occupation is passed over.
The future great singers she discovered, groomed and sometimes loved (Yves Montand, Georges Moustaki) are not represented, while Charles Aznavour is merely glimpsed. Dahan has explained that his choices centred more on the people who mattered for Piaf rather than those for who Piaf mattered, ensuring the film avoids the special-guest-star syndrome of many biopics.
The film opens in New York in 1959, toward the end of Piaf's life, when the singer, stunted by rheumatism and debilitated by drink and drug abuse, was regularly collapsing on stage. Flash back to post-World War I Belleville, the poor district of Paris, where Piaf was born in 1915 to a vagrant street singer mother and an itinerant acrobat father.
The dramatic construction then seesaws between a chronological account of her adolescence and youth - her time in a Normandy brothel run by her paternal grandmother, her temporary blindness, her discovery by cabaret owner Louis Leplee who re-names her 'la mome Piaf ('sparrow kid'), her professional breakthrough on the eve of World War II - and her final years.
The sense is of moving from triumph to decline, but by fragmenting the final years, Dahan braids the action towards the final apotheosis in 1960, where she introduces her signature song Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.
Transformed by makeup, Cotillard gives a brassy, vulnerable and imperious rendering of Piaf, on-stage and off. If at times we are too aware of the technique, it is nevertheless a poignant rendering of a woman who was her own boss and who made no distinctions between art and life.
But some of Cotillard's best moments are small and uneventful: there is a lovely scene on a beach in Malibu, where Piaf sits childlike in the sand knitting as she fields questions from an admiring journalist.
The large supporting cast is solid, even if some suffer from cropped screen time, such as Gerard Depardieu, back on automatic pilot as promoter Leplee. But Sylvie Testud is spiky and ambiguous as Piaf's girlfriend and confidante Momone; Jean-Paul Rouve shows real dramatic temperament as Piaf's father; Pascal Greggory is the fretfully solicitous manager; Jean-Pierre Martins, a professional musician, is winning (both in the ring and out) as Cerdan; and Emmanuelle Seigner transcends cliche as the big-hearted prostitute who temporarily becomes young Edith's surrogate mother.
There is also a brief but mesmerising turn by Caroline Sihol as Marlene Dietrich, one of Piaf's long-term friends.
Dahan, who directs both the intimacy and the spectacle with equal command, draws superb work from his collaborators, with subtly textured camerawork and complex production design. Moody original music complements playback performances of Piaf's songs as mimed by Cotillard.