The greatest obstacle in mounting a successful biopic—a genre in dire need of a shot of adrenaline—is for the lead performer to overcome ventriloquism. Although Marion Cotillard, in a career-defining performance, lip-synchs all of Edith Piaf’s songs, the actor is no dummy. She doesn’t merely embody the French singing legend; she is possessed with all of the monstrous talent—and behavior—that burst out of the 4'8" chanteuse. After a series of recent, dreadfully misguided distaff docudramas, including last year’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus and Factory Girl, Olivier Dahan’s film is all the more impressive for its energy and completely earned grandiosity. Ultimately, even all the moments of squirmy excess—Piaf on her deathbed, a final-act revelation—can be forgiven.
Where Judy Garland (coincidentally, only three inches taller than the Little Sparrow; how did so much sound come out of these half-pints?) had Carnegie Hall, Piaf had the Olympia, the site of many a triumph after illness and addiction. Both Dahan and Cotillard are exquisitely attuned to the electrifying rush an impeccable performance can produce. Dahan makes us wait for the cathartic release until the very end; the effect is not manipulative but absolutely exhilarating. I know one Frenchwoman (with exceptionally high standards) who sobbed during the movie. Yet the appeal of La Vie en Rose transcends nationality or one’s predilection for the chanson tradition. In other words: It’s the singer, not the song.