Sunday, May 4, 2014

Star Power

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2007)

La vie en rose, a French biopic of Edith Piaf, could seem very much like a calculated attempt to borrow the Ray/Walk The Line formula – take an iconic but troubled 20th century icon, find a leading actor to pull off a career-defining transformation, and clean up at the box office and the awards alike. If so, one piece certainly worked like a dream – the casting of Marion Cotillard. Perhaps best known here as the beautiful love interest in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, she inhabits Piaf with scary, often heartbreaking precision. Indeed, between Cotillard’s work and the remarkably precise make-up achievement, I can hardly recall a performance that so precisely mapped a person’s inner and outer changes across twenty-five years or so.
La vie en rose
Of course, Cotillard has a lot to work with. Piaf’s life encompassed most of the personal tragedies one might ever have to grapple with (a childhood in a brothel, all kinds of people dying on her, addictions and ailments), and she was only 47 when she died. Most of these traumas are in the film - it skips over one of her husbands and her affair with Yves Montand, but this is a fairly typical kind of compression. More problematic, as many critics have pointed out, is writer-director Oliver Dahan’s overall structure, which does a lot of not-very-nimble jumping around in time. I never felt confused by this, largely again thanks to Cotillard, but it never seems like the best approach either. In particular, a major piece of her biography, belonging to her late teenage years, only turns up in the last few minutes, via a deathbed flashback. Maybe we’re meant to see this as the Rosebud moment that grants us the ultimate insight into her suffering, but if so it’s not at all well-handled.
Cursory research on Piaf underlines the role she played in the French Resistance, which is bizarrely absent from La vie en rose – indeed, you’d barely know there was ever a war. Absent this, the film doesn’t do that good a job of conveying why she became quite so important to the French (I thought Walk the Line had a similar limitation vis a vis Johnny Cash) – actually it spends a disproportionate amount of time on her travails in New York and L.A. It was a huge hit in France though, so I guess the audiences filled in the gaps for themselves. And despite these reservations, I have to say I was fairly consistently gripped, and often moved, by the film. Did I mention Marion Cotillard already?
Ocean’s Thirteen
In fact, La vie en rose emanates greater star power than Ocean’s Thirteen, despite the accumulated charisma of Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Pacino and others. Well, it ought to accumulate, but the real effect is more of a mutual dilution. The third film in Steven Soderbergh’s odd series, basically an exercise in mass-market pandering while somehow carrying hints of high-quality experimentation, hits the ground running and never lets up. Within a couple of minutes the gang has a rationale for pulling off a big job, this time directed towards a new hotel/casino built by kingpin Pacino; the logistics pile up, and the rest of the movie keeps the wheels turning. With so much functional stuff to churn through, and divided up among so many players, you look back and can’t remember anyone getting more than a couple of good lines.
Of course, everyone looks very cool and collected, and the movie never seems like a total waste of anyone’s time. You suspect though that the reasons for this are nowhere evident on the screen. In this sense it’s a very precise homage to the Rat Pack movies, which got made in the spaces in between the booze and the broads, but given the visibility of the current age, if there were anything juicy going on in the Ocean’s Thirteen dressing rooms we’d have heard about it long ago. Still, you suspect the series could go on forever, and still no one would know why. Final observation – apart from Ellen Barkin (hotter than ever), the movie is severely short of female presence; in fact the most visible woman (seen just on TV) is Oprah Winfrey, towards whom everyone is extremely respectful. Is that part of the experiment?
Another kind of female star power turns up in Luc Besson’s Angel-A. Besson, best known for Subway, La Femme Nikita and Leon (The Professional) is another titan at the French box office, as much as writer or producer than as a director; most of his recent output hasn’t been seen over here. Angel-A was his first directing gig in six years (Arthur and the Invisibles, which came out earlier this year, was actually made afterwards). Less bombastic than most of his other movies (to the extent of being shot in black and white), it’s a small-scale fantasy about a miserable small-time crook who’s diverted from the brink of suicide by an out-of-this-world beauty who seems just as desperate. Turns out she’s an angel – his guardian angel, sent to turn his life around.
I doubt whether six months ever goes by without some movie variation on the guardian angel theme – there was a particular spate of them a few years ago, scooping up Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, among others I forget. Angel-A fits happily into the genre – initially there’s a bit of mild rough stuff, and Angela is a feistier emissary than some of her predecessors, but as far as the underlying theme goes, this could easily have been called It’s a Wonderful Life, if that hadn’t already been taken.

The film does attract some distinctiveness by casting the short Moroccan actor Jamel Debbouze in the central role, and Rie Rasmussen (who is five inches taller than Debbouze) as the angel. Born in Copenhagen, Rasmussen slices through the movie in the miniest of dresses, suggesting a more scintillating concept of the next world than anything inherent in the dialogue. She and Debbouze do share some modest chemistry, but the movie renders her so chillingly “other” that Brad Pitt himself wouldn’t look worthy. A recent interview with her seemed to indicate a headstrong, self-defined, ambitious woman with no interest in playing anyone else’s game. I assume this means we’ll never hear of her again.


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