A legendary life stripped of melody
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Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose, a biopic of French singer Edith Piaf, gives new meaning to the word “hagiography”. Poor Edith. Though no beauty, she had a powerhouse incandescence that made beauty irrelevant. But actress Marion Cotillard, by self-will or Svengali direction, plays her for 140 minutes as a pouting crone with popping eyeballs. “No subtlety, Marion, please,” must be what Dahan kept saying to her on set, “just come on like a demented bat.”
You have to hand it to French biopics. When they are good, they are the best (Abel Gance’s Napoleon). When they are bad, they are the uncompromising worst. Tripiness goes through this film like lettering through seaside rock. The structure aims to do a Citizen Kane, with long, framed flashbacks and flashbacks- within-flashbacks, but succeeds only in losing such plot as there was in Piaf’s life.
Born into an early-century Stella Artois commercial – all moted sunlight and menfolk in black caps and work jackets – young Edith grew up amid life’s chastening realities. In a Normandy brothel she was foster-mothered by a prostitute (Emmanuelle Seigner). Her dad reclaimed her for a circus life, then took her on the streets when he became a busker. Edith sings a snatch of “The Marseillaise” – after the crowd has rhubarbed “doesn’t the girl do anything?” – and lo, a star is born.
After that, watching the film is like being buried alive under spadefuls of kitsch. Everything is broad-stroke rhetoric, nothing is telltale, living detail. Piaf’s great voice is abused by overuse, blasted out as accompaniment or as playback to Cotillon’s hectic miming. If the early Piaf is presented as a waif who has escaped from Picasso’s blue period, the later Piaf, with her clown-like pencilled eyebrows and lipsticked pout, seems to be morphing into Judy Garland. When she collapses on stage during a concert, we think – we hope – that it is all over. But no. There is still more than half an hour, handstitched with flashbacks, in which the singer must meet, marry and tragically lose boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins).
One needs a Roland Barthes to do justice to the semiology of clichés. The hanging washing in slum scenes (La Bohème-style picturesque poverty). The flower bouquet carried down the aircraft steps (symbol of stardom since Doris Day). The accordion music (France and heartbreak). Gérard Depardieu: but no, he is too good to be a cliché. Playing nightclub impresario Louis Leplée, he suggests, for a few heartening minutes, that there is still acting talent left on planet Earth. Watch and listen as he conceives and proposes the stage name “Piaf” and rolls it, like a surprising wine, around his tongue. It is the only fresh moment in the film.
Las Vegas is becoming the default setting of American screen fiction. Every time we turn on late-evening television, the guys and gals of CSI are X-raying or laser-scoping a dead gambler’s innards. Every time we visit the cinema, Clooney, Pitt and Damon are smirking through an ocean of rainbow-coloured neon. And the only Paris Hilton more overexposed than the one now in jail is the one opposite the high rollers’ favourite hotel. The Strip’s Paris Hilton, with its balloon and faux Eiffel Tower, eyeballs the high-dancing fountains of the Bellagio, main setting for Lucky You.
Those fountains give an extra gush when singer Drew Barrymore kisses poker player Eric Bana, in a moment pop-Freudian enough for Splendour in the Grass. Little else provides pleasure, even guilty, in this disappointing card-table drama directed and co-written by Curtis LA Confidential Hanson. The characters are assembled slickly but shallowly. Wannabe torch diva Barrymore, a girl from Bakersfield wearing her sophistication like teeth-whitening, takes a shine to tormented gambler Bana, a Byronic haiku in search of an actor. (Why does this Australian hunk always bring to mind the phrase “lights on but no one at home”?) And then Robert Duvall moseys in, squeezing those eyes and chewing that method actor’s cud as Bana’s dad, a poker legend and rival who owes sonny some overdue love and parenting.
The story proceeds like the anecdote of a bore at a party, while you, unhappy but cornered, feed the bore polite questions. “Really? And so Barrymore gets angry at Bana when he pilfers her shopping money? Really? And Duvall and Bana are left face-to-face at the final contest, with dead mum’s ring thrown in as an extra prize?” The only prizes the filmgoer takes away are a couple of dialogue zingers that capture Vegas’s perfect inanity in the age of the themed resort. A black jobber and multiple employee, asked if he is still a gondolier at the Venetian Hotel, replies: “No, this year I’m a Nubian slave at the Luxor.”
And I am now, in Captivity, a blonde model screaming to be freed from a psychopath’s cellar. A critic too is a player of many parts. He inhabits several different jeopardies a day. He has scarcely shaken off the Vegas gold dust before he is tied to a brutal contraption of gears, levers and metal teeth called a Roland Joffé horror movie. (Joffé? Didn’t he once win prizes and woo the chattering class with The Mission and The Killing Fields?) This is a dire essay in torture porn, stick-shifting halfway into a thriller-with-a-twist. One key character is exposed as what we in the trade abbreviate as an NWHA (Not What He Appears), while another is exposed as an EHAAEL (Everything He Appears And Even Less).
We are in a month that should come with a health warning. The advance tremors of Wimbledon, high-season Test cricket and annual vacation-taking cause film companies’ storage rooms to rumble, shaking their dust-laden buying errors off the shelves and on to distribution carts.
Let us forget Thailand’s Shutter, a horror film paradigmatic in its pottiness. As for PTU, director Johnny To is the latest action-thriller flavour to be exported from Hong Kong, if you can use the word “flavour” of something that doesn’t have very much.
At least this film, unlike To’s undercooked crime drama Exiled, UK-released last week, has a busy plot: the deftly orchestrated battle between cops and gangs on a hot round-up night where everything goes wrong. The chief policeman looks like Oliver Hardy. The near-abstract manoeuvrings of characters could come from a Miklós Jancsó film. And synergetic work methods in the cop shop are illustrated by the scene in which one officer kicks a gang boy to the ground, whereupon another kneels to give him the kiss of life. That’s what I call joined-up law enforcement.
For the enterprising, a trip to London’s BFI Southbank (formerly National Film Theatre) yields delight in duplicate. The John Cassavetes season is built around a gleaming print of Opening Night (1977), his backstage drama fashioned for wife Gena Rowlands. The Mikio Naruse season honours an undersung Japanese director of the 1940s and
1950s, who, unlike the makers of this week’s new releases, understood that less is more.
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