A life less ordinary

The turbulent tale of Édith Piaf is rendered vividly by a clever director

<strong>La Vie en rose (

You know what you're getting with a biopic: the potted version of a famous life, pared down to the highs and lows (but mostly lows), complete with poverty-stricken childhood, ample suffering, a good cry and an Oscar at the end of it for the star. I can't help but associate biopics with housework, because my mother always used to play her video of The Great Caruso while she did the ironing. By the time Mario Lanza popped his clogs at the end, my father's shirts would be drenched with tears, and the hissing of the iron would be drowned out by Mum's sobbing. (I might have embellished these memories a little, but that's the effect these over-the-top films have on you.)

These days, I reach instinctively for the ironing board whenever I watch a biopic - but because the security guards wouldn't let me take it in to the screening of La Vie en rose, the new film about the tragic chanteuse Édith Piaf, I found the viewing experience rather unsettling. Or maybe that was just the way the director, Olivier Dahan, wanted me to feel.

Dahan is no fool: he knows that biopics are inclined to be turgid, so he has set out to make one that is fleet of foot and disrespectful of convention. Not easy, as Piaf's life amounted to a catalogue of heartbreak, scandals, drugs and death - punctuated, of course, by some of the most bewitching musical performances of the 20th century. Classic material, it would seem, for a cookie-cutter weepie.

But Dahan has a few tricks for dispelling the complacency inherent in most biopics. The first is to shoot largely in close-up, creating a sense of claustrophobia in the cinema, and making everyone on screen look slightly grotesque - not an easy task, as Piaf is played by the wistful, elfin Marion Cotillard, albeit under an avalanche of make-up in scenes of the haggard singer shortly before her death at the age of just 47. Even though the film is rightly reverent toward Piaf's talent - the scene of her performing, or rather unleashing, "Non, je ne regrette rien" at the Olympia in Paris is electrifying - the earthy visual style keeps the film rooted in realism, even during bizarre interludes such as Piaf encountering the ghost of her freshly deceased lover.

Dahan's other notable trick is to throw chronology out of the window. On the plus side, this liberates Piaf's life story from being one long, downward spiral. Scenes of a drunken Piaf haranguing waiters at the height of her fame are placed adjacent to episodes from her childhood, some of which she spent living in a brothel, so that we never forget where she came from, or what informed her torturous adult life. Towards the end of the picture, Dahan's shuffling of chronology starts to resemble the fumbling of a rookie croupier dealing cards (he drops one particular biographical bombshell at the last moment, like an afterthought). But bravo to him for trying to shake up this moribund genre. I didn't think of housework once.

There is far less to love in Paris, je t'aime, a portmanteau film, due to be released on 29 June, which comprises 18 shorts by leading international directors, among them the Coen brothers, Gus Van Sant and Alfonso Cuarón, and boasting such stars as Juliette Binoche, Steve Buscemi and Natalie Portman. The brief was to portray an unusual encounter in Paris, but the quality control is pretty lax, and most of the stories are gimmicky or inconsequential.

I don't want to embarrass the guilty - though it has to be said that Wes Craven's contribution, set in Père-Lachaise cemetery and featuring Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer having their marriage saved by the ghost of Oscar Wilde, is so cringe-making that I sort of want to see it again. But let's just congratulate Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) on his whizz-bang distillation of an entire relationship into five minutes and commend Alexander Payne (Sideways) for his poignant study of a lonely, middle-aged American postal worker recounting what she did on her holidays to her French class back home. My own pitiful GCSE French permits me to say only: "C'est magnifique." As for the other shorts in Paris, je t'aime - bring your ironing.

Pick of the week

Lucky You (PG)
dir: Curtis Hanson
Eric Bana stars as a professional gambler in the latest feature from the dependable director of LA Confidential and 8 Mile.

The War on Democracy (12A)
dirs: John Pilger, Chris Martin
Exposing the truth about the US oppression of Latin America.

Not Here to Be Loved (15)
dir: Stéphane Brizé
Good-hearted bailiff learns to tango. Only in the movies, eh?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?