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A complex portrait of a spellbinding singer

Marion Cotillard (right, with Sylvie Testud) as Edith Piaf, the urchin turned international star, in "La Vie en Rose." (Bruno Calvo/Picturehouse)

Not too far into "La Vie en Rose ," Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard ) enters a big New York recording studio and stands under a microphone. Her mouth opens and out flies a song. But it's not the language in the tune you seize on. It's the language of her body. The woman stands with her legs apart and her hands on her hips. The face -- oh, that face and its pallid skin, red lips, penciled eyebrows, and unruly pageboy; she looks like Louise Brooks' ghostly sister. Her face is a defiant, aching mask. The year is 1959, four years before Piaf's death from cancer, and her expression suggests that there's an endless supply of ache-inducing material.

If even half of Olivier Dahan's robust film about Piaf's life is true -- and let's face it, much remains shrouded in myth and mystery -- it's a wonder she could get dressed in the morning, let alone forge a legendary singing career. But the movie exuberantly argues that her emotional aches and pains sustained her while the physical ones did her in. Her triumph was not simply over poverty, bad genes, and worse health. It was over a fickle cosmos, too. Good luck came with a whole lot of bad.

In this movie's version of her life, Edith is abandoned by her mother, dumped at her granny's brothel, raised by prostitutes, separated from the hooker who painted little Edith's face like a clown but loved her like a doll, and reunited with her abusive acrobat father. Young Edith goes blind until her sight is miraculously restored. She goes hungry until the club owner Louis Leplée (Gerard Depardieu ) discovers her busking on the Paris streets. He changes her name from Edith Giovanna Gassion to Edith Piaf and launches her career. But when he's found dead, she's momentarily fingered as a suspect in the murder. Nary a word is mentioned of Piaf's contributions to the French Resistance. Not tragic enough perhaps. In lieu of revolution, the woman is slapped, dragged, shouted at, nearly killed in a car crash, dependent on morphine, and spectacularly alcoholic. She loses friends, including her butch buddy Momone , who's played by the wonderfully feline Sylvie Testud. But Piaf never wanted the show to stop. She loses family. And this is just a partial list.

"La Vie en Rose" comes wrapped in standard biopic packaging. It traces Piaf's difficult rise from snot-nosed urchin to international superstar to palsied, prematurely aged invalid, complete with the obligatory star-conquers-world montage that includes close-ups of newspaper articles and copies of Match magazine flying off the presses. But the movie also spins like a wheel of misfortune around her life with dizzying, almost impressionistic style.

Even when the film stops oscillating to show Edith's blissful affair with the European middleweight Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins ), we suspect that bad news can't be too far off. They were both at the top of their careers, and in 1983's bauble, "Edith et Marcel ," Claude Lelouch turned the lovers into one of his usual advertisements for having it all.

Dahan uses the relationship to bring a moment of sanity to the film. Their amour wasn't fou. It was stabilizing for her, the only calm she would ever really know. But her unraveling after its terrible demise produces the movie's most ingeniously conceived piece of directing and production design, wherein Edith's private agony seamlessly becomes a public spectacle. Better than almost any film about an entertainer I've seen, "La Vie en Rose" uses perceptive filmmaking, as opposed to turgid exposition, to explain its subject's psyche and to cleverly capture the spell she cast over audiences.

Cotillard is spellbinding in her own right. Whether she's bounding mannishly up a flight of stairs, learning how to sing in harmony with her body, shuffling, stooped and slow, into a room, or belting out a song completely drunk, she turns Piaf into an intensely physical creature. But there is also incontrovertible sadness in her performance that gives the movie as much tortured soul as Jamie Foxx brought to "Ray " and as much melancholy as Joaquin Phoenix brought to "Walk the Line ." Sometimes even when the character is happy, Cotillard, who's only 31, keeps the singer's face -- at 20, at 47 -- etched in the mask of tragedy.

It's Piaf she's playing, it's true. but you wouldn't be mistaken for detecting in Cotillard's rendition generous helpings of Judy Garland and Billie Holiday , women whose titanic talent was at war with their titanic unhappiness. Piaf was similar but on a smaller, less self-destructive scale. By comparison, she's an optimist. When, she shuffles out in front of a packed concert hall to debut "No, je ne regrette rien " three years before her death, you know she means it. She's singing her own "My Way."

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, go to movies/blog.


La Vie en Rose

Directed by: Olivier Dahan

Written by: Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman

Starring: Marion Cotillard , Sylvie Testud , Gerard Depardieu , Jean-Pierre Martins

At: Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner

Running time: 140 minutes

In French, with subtitles

Rated: PG-13 (substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements)