Encompassing hardship and tragedy of near-mythic proportions, the details of Edith Piaf's life story seem spawned from literature and are so well-suited to cinematic adaptation they appear invented. Abandoned by her mother as a child and raised for a time by her grandmother in a brothel, only to be later whisked away by her circus and street acrobat father - and that's really just for starters - the iconic French singer had a colorful history that most often resembles a Fellini film. Rather than downplay this almost otherworldly cast of characters in his biographical rendition, "La Vie en rose," writer-director Olivier Dahan heightens the intensity. Full of garish reds and sultry blues, the film frees itself from playing it straight; Dahan populates his narrative with vaguely fanciful moments, such as Piaf's vision of Saint Therese timed to coincide with a fire breather's practice mouthful, or a stray, strange-making moment when young Edith stares intently at a porcelain Japanese doll in a shop window as her father packs up in the rain, her gaze holding to it as long as possible as the store shuts down for the day. In these and many other touches, the movie happily acknowledges what many a biopic fails to: it has taken liberties with the material.
Because the biopic often simply plugs a personality into a formula - tracing a rags-to-riches trajectory, focusing on a singular love affair, detailing a triumphant return - the qualities of its central exceptional individual tend to be flattened by cliche rather than illuminated. Though he subscribes to many of the genre's tenets, Dahan's subtle departures from this standard are what make "La Vie en rose" such an enlivening portrait of Piaf. Instead of fitting events into a neatly legible chronology, the filmmaker teasingly flits between various periods, signposting with subtitles denoting time and place until we get the hang of things - at which point he abandons the device and grooves to the free-ranging form. Privileging certain encounters (Piaf's doomed relationship with boxer Marcel Cerdan, lent fairy-tale cadences as shot on artfully fake sets standing in for New York) while gesturing only slightly towards other significant experiences (a husband here, a fading friendship there, the loss of a daughter to disease seen in deathbed flashback), "La Vie en rose" operates as a kind of impressionistic shorthand, an onomatopoetic rendering of Piaf's whirling dervish persona.
These temporal shifts maintain a fluidity clarified by Marion Cottilard's glorious performance as the chanteuse. The actress uses her entire body to convey varying degrees of maturity and sophistication; morphing from insecure neophyte to commanding and demanding star to ailing songstress, Cottilard makes recognizable and cohesive the disparate time periods flashing back and forth. Starting out on the streets, Piaf is pure instinct; as reflexive as reaching for her next drink, she blindly births that big voice, hands shyly at her sides. But, under the tutelage of Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe), she learns to sculpt it, to draw from the dramatic depths of her own pain, as captured in her breakout performance at a music hall, set to silence - all the better to offset the artistic transformation. The sentimental crescendo reached by film's end as she sings "Non, je ne regrette rien" feels entirely earned - not just by Piaf but by Cotillard - so that you want to break into applause along with the enraptured audience onscreen.
Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York's Film Forum.