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Curating The Sydney Film Festival: Clare Stewart

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Promotional banner for the 2010 Sydney Film Festival I’m just back from a talk at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art called “Creation + Curation”, run as part of the Creative Sydney festival.

The Sydney Film Festival is also running at the moment, and festival director Clare Stewart was one of the speakers at this afternoon’s event, along with Ute Noll (photography curator), Dom Alessio (Triple J Radio) and Joseph Shea (IzRock).

The gorgeously attired Clare talked through her background as a film programmer and the process involved in putting together the Sydney festival. Here are a few highlights.
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Written by Darren Smith

5 June 2010 at 7:05 pm

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.

Written by Darren Smith

21 August 2008 at 11:31 pm