I guess I'm the first to weigh in on the biopic of Edith Piaf, which seems to be feverishly building buzz as of late, and it is with regret that I chime in on the thumbs-down side. This is a conventional biopic -- practically Ray with subtitles -- and features all of the bio conventions I've become so very tired of in recent years. Traumatic childhood? Check. Struggle with drug addiction? Check. Lazy montage charting the transition from humble beginnings to enormous success? Check. I couldn't help but feeling I'd seen this all before. There's nothing new except the milieu.
Well, there's another aspect that's different: the fractured narrative, which hops from Piaf's childhood to her deathbed and everywhere in between at random. I found this device to be colossally miscalculated. Many biopics seem to exist as collections of random moments rather than story arcs, but this film exacerbates that common problem to whole new levels. Forget any semblance of cause-and-effect -- the film seems content to bounce around in time and hope that its focus at the moment is compelling. I completely lost the through-line. Furthermore, this device absolutely squashes the emotional power of many scenes, particularly those near the end of the film. Shouldn't Piaf's final days be the emotional catharsis of the film, the capper to all the struggles that have come before? Instead, the film keeps bouncing back to plot points from her childhood and teenage years (even introducing new story elements), and I found it all to be a mess. The film is a jumble, a collection of half-interesting scenes missing the connective tissue that would make the material the powerhouse it should be.
It can be a challenge to predict the tastes of those on this board, but I have a feeling Marion Cotillard's performance (particularly if it becomes a major player in this year's awards derby) will not be well-liked. I've found Cotillard an interesting screen presence since I saw her in A Very Long Engagement, and she has some fine scenes when she's playing the younger Piaf. But once her physical transformation begins, as she's hunched over under layers of makeup, the intense effort it takes her to A-C-T is wholly unbelievable. She plays every scene to 11, and it's no surprise at all that she's received so much acclaim for her performance: how could you not notice her screaming and twitching up a storm in every scene? Her transformation is indeed uncanny, but isn't that a triumph of makeup rather than acting?
This is not to say that there aren't some fine touches in the film. The music is, of course, wonderful. In particular, there are some nice aural flourishes as the soundtrack uses both music and silence to interesting dramatic effect. On the whole, however, I feel like I've walked this line many times before.