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Film review: La Vie en Rose

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Marion Cotillard plays French chanteuse, Edith Piaf.

They’ve done it — a biopic about Edith Piaf. That small-framed, French chanteuse who I fell in love with as a kid, running into my bedroom dancing and miming to her songs. [Eds note: This is an old review I am posting.]

La Vie en BoozeRose opened recently in Sydney, kicking off the 2007 Sydney Film Festival at the State Theatre (which, for those outside of our city, is a grand old dame of a theatre with baroque trimmings both splendid and gaudy in one breath). And what a venue to see a movie about someone who was both splendid and gaudy.

I am not a huge fan of biopics. Birth, childhood, life and tragic death — we know the storyline and, at least in the case of a musician’s life, it is bound to end in their signature song as they die and a montage of their life plays across the screen (tissues please). So, no spoilers in this review. But being the fan of Edith, I did enjoy it.

Edith’s life reads like the character in Patrick Suskind’s book Perfume. Like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Piaf was born in the slums of Paris and her childhood was a struggle for survival. Her father was a soldier/contortionist and her mother a street urchin. When Piaf’s father went off to earn some money in the circus, he left Piaf with his mother, a madame at the local brothel. The child Piaf becomes attached to one of the workers. No sooner does she develop an attachment than Piaf is torn away again. This is kind of the pattern of her life. Her upringing is the inspiration and food of her music.

A key moment is when Piaf discovers not only that she can sing, but that she can be loved for it. Pauline Brulet, playing the young Piaf singing La Marseillaise was brilliant. Piaf then begins her singing career: first in seedy cabaret, then classier cabaret and then concert hall performances. (I always wondered why Baz Luhrmann never paid tribute to Piaf in his epic-epileptic Moulin Rouge.)

Piaf’s life is one fall after another, and often literally and on stage and on methadone (god knows they had her collapse at least 10 times throughout).

So there you go. Voilà!

Piaf was no glamour queen. She had a small frame, was’t particularly healthy, no stunner, walked around awkwardly and a little boorish. She was from the streets, kind of like J-Lo’s block. She was no Marlene Dietrich, who was graceful and glamorous and knew how to present herself (Lilli Marleen knew her best camera and lighting angles). Nor was Piaf really a performer — there are no grand stage shows here — and, in fact, she was portrayed in the film as being quite terrified of performing. This is all her appeal.

Marion Coterill (Big Fish), the actress who played adult Piaf, was outstanding in here Oscar-winning performance as Piaf. With gorgeous huge eyes (and shaved back hairline and shaved off eyebrows), you really got a sense of Piaf’s vulnerability, cheekiness and frivolity. And I think the great moment for me was when she is singing and you watch her eyes. Initially she is looking for validation, searching for it with her eyes. Then there is a change and she is so enjoying it, proud and confident.

The development of her understated and provincial image, how she deliberately chose to present herself in a very simple way, was fascinating.

Biopics generally tend to emphasise the tragic. The character’s flaws and tragique makes their greatness even more divine, much like a saint.

Sometimes the compulsion to emphasise the tragedy comes at a cost — in La Vie the price to pay was sacrificing some of her more heroic deeds (and less methadone/booze induced ones). One of the unfortunate absences from La Vie en Rose was any mention of her work during the Second World War and her involvement in the French Resistance during the Nazi Occupation. There are some interesting and funny stories about how she used her celebrity and popularity to help the resistance movement. Piaf has gained a lot of respect in France for her work in occupied France and many of her songs are tributes to the soldiers. It was a shame some time wasn’t devoted to that (in exchange for a couple of those scenes where she looked decrepit/drugged/drunk/collapsed … all what we expect from this kind of movie).

Also, Piaf’s career is presented in the film sometimes as made by men. Some mention of her relationship with Yves Montand (who would also become another major French export) and how she ‘discovered’ him, becoming both his mentor and lover, was needed.

So, yes all grand DIVA tragedy, but she was more than a messed-up bird on a stage.

From a film perspective I also found La Vie en Rose a little clunky and deliberate. It’s almost as if the film-maker went: ‘OK, we have to mention her relationship with Mr A because we have to tick that off the timeline’. So there were lots of really interesting relationships that I wanted to know more about, but alas the plot was driven by the demands of covering a lifetime in 2 or so hours. This is why I think movies like The Queen or Downfall or Capote or Wilde, offer really interesting insights into public figures in history and are so successful. They focus on specific moments where the character is making choices about how to deal with a compromising situation. Often, these moments can reveal more about the person than one hour of childhood explication. Another film is Gus van Sant’s Last Days, based on Kurt Cobain’s last days.

So, I think La Vie en Rose could have been more focused. Then I could read a biography of her life for the detail.

Piaf’s last performance, at age 47, was at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. If you check out the footage, this bird is still standing on the streets of Belleville, Paris, singing on the sidewalk. Piaf, her voice, passion and music makes this movie.

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Written by Darren Smith

21 August 2008 at 11:31 pm

Film discussion: Judgment at Nuremberg (Part 1)

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Stanley Kramer’s 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg is a demanding (at 3hrs) but very rewarding piece of cinema, especially for the uncomfortable questions it raises about law, justice and morality.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Between November 1945 and October 1946, 24 of the key figures in the Nazi leadership faced trial before the International Military Tribunal. The trials were important not only in prosecuting the war crimes committed by the Nazis, but also in setting the foundations for prosecuting international war crimes in years to come.

Contrary to my expectations, Judgment at Nuremberg is not an account of those trials. Rather, it is about the later Judges’ Trials of 1948, which were held under US military law. While initially disappointed that the villains of Nazism weren’t the villains in this story, I soon found the choice of the judges’ trials a more fascinating story that took the film in completely unanticipated directions.

Threads

The movie is set in the post-war ruins of Nuremberg, once the site of massive Nazi rallies. The ruins are a character in themselves – not only are Germany’s buildings in ruins, but so too its soul. And one of the things this film is doing is sifting through those ruins to see if anything (dignity, innocence) remains.

Another important thread in this movie is the nature of law. The choice of the trial of judges – who are the ultimate umpires or protectors of Law – absolutely shifts the focus to a trial of Law as well. But more on this later.

Synopsis

Spencer Tracey plays Chief Judge Dan Haywood, a former US District Court judge styled in the mold of American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – the epitome of American legal virtue. The judge is the audience’s surrogate – like him, it’s all new to us and we are being asked to judge as well.

The judge presides over the prosecution of 4 judges in the Nazi regime, including Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). Each faced a number of war crimes-related charges, including murder, and each entered a plea of not guilty. Richard Widmark plays the firebrand prosecutor, Colonel Lawson, while Maximilian Schell plays the sterling role of counsel for defence.

Now, as counsel for the defense points out “… it is not only Ernst Janning who is on trial here, it’s German people”. Enter the subplot.

The judge takes time out from the proceedings to explore Nuremberg – a refreshing break from the sometimes heavy proceedings. He meets Frau Berthold (Marlene Dietrich), widow of a German military official tried and executed at the first Nuremberg trials – they lived in the house occupied by the judge for the trials’ duration. Berthold and the judge develop a close, but all above board, bond in the movie. In many ways, she symbolises the goodness and beauty of Germany in the shadow of the war’s atrocities, or at least the attempt to revive it. One great and very poignant scene is where they are both walking home together and a chorus of Germanfolk are singing “Das Lied eines Jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht”, or “Lili Marleen” (an old German song made famous by Dietrich, who sang it to Allied troops in the war). As the two walk, Dietrich herself begins to sing.

This narrative provides relief from the gravity and dramatic tension of the courtroom, and also boasts some fitting samples of Beethoven, Wagner and a little oomp-pa-pa for good measure.

The trial continues to unfold, with the prosecution presenting two key witnesses. The first is the nervous Rudolf Peterson (played by the uber talented Montgomery Clift), who was forcibly “sanitised” (neutered) as part of the Nazi mental health policy. The second was Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland), imprisoned for refusing to testify against a Jewish family friend for alleged rape. Both cases were handled by the judges on trial.

The cross-examinations are harrowing, as both witnesses pretty much go on trial again care of the defence. The main argument is that both witnesses were correctly and appropriately judged according to laws at the time. While there is a lot of detail here, it is edge-of-seat stuff and a bit of a head *&^# to be honest. The defence’s cross-examination is superb, uncomfortably convincing, but ultimately flawed.

Despite protestations from his counsel, Janning also gives testimony. His words are a chilling indictment not only of what happened, but all involved both inside an outside Germany, people and nations. The film winds up with the judges’ verdict and reasons for decision, and a touching farewell.

Review

Judgment at Nuremberg is a thoroughly though-provoking and dramatic piece of legal drama, up there with the likes of To Kill A Mockingbird. It presents the complexity involved in questions of justice, responsibility and morality, while still very much retaining a dramatic edge.

The performances are brilliant, especially from Clift, Dietrich and Lancaster. I think the only major flaw lies with some of the photography, which seemed a little melodramatic in parts.

There is no doubt that it is a dense and lengthy movie, but it never really drops the ball and the reward is it makes you walk away with something to think about. It’s an experience.

Another great thing about the movie is that it is not a victor’s film. On first blush, the movie comes across as a bit of American self-aggrandisement. However, the emotivism of the US colonel-prosecutor, reminders that the US wanted to move on from the war crimes trials prove it otherwise. Also, the ever looming Cold War is excellently backgrounded in the film – the wheels of history are turning. The US is about to step into a whole new era where the same questions of justice, law and morality will prove just as vital – Vietnam was just around the corner.

So, five-star goodness from me. Judge for yourself.

My next post will pick up some of the threads that come up in the movie.