After my brief fling with the world of middlebrow American cinema, it's time to return to what I do best: impenetrable French movies.
If you think about it, though, Alain Resnais is totally the sort of filmmaker that the AFI would love. After all, he made a movie about the Holocaust, just like #8,Schindler's List. He made a movie about life after WWII, just like #37, The Best Years of Our Lives. He made a movie with "American" in the title, just like #62, American Graffiti.
His latest is a story about six interconnected Parisians looking futilely for companionship, and sometimes love. Adapted from the British playwright Alan Ayckborn's Private Fears in Public Places (the title it's being released under in the US), Cœurs (Hearts) is a potent reminder of what our national cinemas have in common: photosensitive celluloid.
Structured, much like Bergman's Saraband, as a series of tableaux involving two characters at a time, Cœurs introduces us in no real order to Nicole (Laura Morante) who is apartment-hunting with her increasingly unresponsive fiancé Dan (Lambert Wilson), who often spends time at a bar tended by Lionel (Pierre Arditi), who has just hired Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), an evangelical Christian with a naughty streak, to take after his angry invalid father Arthur (unseen, but voiced by Claude Rich). By day, Charlotte works at a real estate office with Thierry (André Dussolier), Nicole's agent, who lives with his sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré), who is increasingly tired of living with her brother, and who strikes up an affair with Dan.
That seems very precious and even a bit overdetermined, but throughout the running time of the movie we accept it without noticing a hint of contrivance. It helps immeasurably that Resnais turns the film into something like a fable or fairy tale, through the delicate application of poetically real touches like the day-glo colors of Lionel's bar, the cheerfully anachronistic production values of the religious music show that Charlotte foists on Thierry, or above all the "snow transitions" between almost every scene: as one image dissolves into another, they are both overlaid with the image of bright white snowflakes against a blow background. This last detail is what really makes the story feel airy and charming, a winter's tale told over wine after a full dinner, maybe.
The result is something that seems like it should be a contradiction but isn't in the Frenchest way possible: a film that deliberately alienates us from the mise en scène and reminds us always that we are watching a movie, and thereby becomes that much more agreeable and pleasant and accessible. For it is largely because of the artifice of the whole movie that the artifice of the storyline becomes easy to ignore, leaving us with the chance to attend to the emotional resonance of the wandering plot, and not its mechanics. For this is quite an emotive film, a gentle look at the pain of loneliness that almost all of us feel from time to time, if not always. It is a film in a minor key, but it is beautiful and true anyways. 9/10
And now, a film that really does feel like it might have been made in America: La Môme [The Kid], or as we know it these United States, La Vie en Rose (if I may be so bold, Je ne regrette rien would have been better than either of those titles). Or rather, it feels like the French making an American film: for while it's essentially a by-the-book biopic of legendary French cabaret singer Edith Piaf, it's just different enough in tone and plot that you can tell that it's not quite the same cloth that gave us such modern masterpieces as Ray, Walk the Line and Beyond the Sea.
It's a sign of a good biographical film when you can fill almost two-and-a-half hours of balls-out absurdity, all of it true, and still not fit in everything that made the woman unique (for example, there is not even a whisper about her time with the Resistance). Piaf's life was a collection of miseries that would elicit howls of derision if we encountered them, say, in a Dickens novel, yet they happened: born to an alcoholic busker mother, stolen by her father and left to be raised by prostitutes in a brothel, briefly blind as a child, catapulted to stardom out of the seediest cabarets in Paris, addicted to heroin when the pace of international touring got to be too much, prematurely aged and dead before her 48th birthday, looking like a woman twice her age.
The arc of the biopic is set in stone: first we are introduced to the future star, we are censorious of their hedonistic lifestyle, then we are made glad by their climactic shift to good behavior. But we are always encouraged to view the star as a sort of lapsed angel, temporarily bad but never truly wicked. That's maybe the subtlest and most important way that La Vie en Rose is different from its American cousins: Piaf is never made to be anything other than what she is, which is extraordinarily talented, sort of bitchy and very crude. We are not asked to accept her as a good person, but we're not permitted to judge her: she is just what she is, and we must respect that she lived the life she lived. As she sings in one of her most famous songs, the one that the film privileges by placing it at the climax of the film, "No, nothing; I regret nothing."
The unsubtle way that this is not your standard-issue biopic is that it's impossibly convoluted. Opening in 1959 at a New York concert where Piaf collapsed, the script then flashes back to her childhood and forward from 1959; and when the flashback reaches 1959, it just keeps on moving forward even as the 1963 plot occurs at the same time. There's really no hope of actually getting a sense of the events of Piaf's life from this movie; instead there is a flow of emotions and moments that culminate in an understanding of how she felt about her life. It's frustrating, but at the same time it's hard to imagine how a life this messy could be well-served by an "A then B then C" plot.
Holding it all together, in the finest performance of 2007 thus far and the finest performance of a real-life person since Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, is Marion Cotillard, a 31-year-old actress whose career has been marked by mostly irrelevant pictures, culminating in Ridley Scott's A Good Year. I have no idea who looked at her and thought, "That's the one! She is my Edith Piaf!" but that person is godly, for Cotillard is perfection itself in this role. As an act of sheer mimicry, it's flawless, but she does not rest there: her performance is a performance, and it's one of the most physical I've seen in many a year. Every move of her hands, twitch of her eye, curl of her mouth; is Piaf. She somehow manages to diminish herself into the 4'8" Piaf's frame, and yet still dominate every scene. At no point from age 20 to the crypt-like age 47 at which Piaf dies (perhaps surprisingly, on-screen, in a scene that is as heart-wrenching as any cinematic death ever has been) does Cotillard falter in her performance.
Fair is fair: this is not a masterpiece. Like all biopics, it shows much more than it derives meaning from showing. But it is a great biopic for all that, one of the greatest that I've ever seen. "The Little Sparrow" she was called, but there's nothing little about the Piaf of La Vie en Rose: she is extraordinary and larger than the mere details of her life, however strange and melodramatic they might be. 8/10