"La Vie en Rose" a torch song to the "Little Sparrow"

The French singer Edith Piaf lived a life almost too melodramatic to believe; if it were a novel, readers would arch their eyebrows. Born in an impoverished area of Paris to a cafe singer and a circus contortionist, she spent much of her childhood in a brothel (run by her grandmother) and later lived on the streets until she was discovered, at 20, by a nightclub owner. Her adult life would encompass both great fame and great tragedy: illness, drug addiction, doomed love affairs and early death from cancer in 1963, at only 47.

All this drama, thoughtfully explored in Olivier Dahan's "La Vie en Rose," may well remind Americans of Judy Garland, with whom Piaf shared a distinctive voice (not pretty but raw and unforgettable), a way of emotionally connecting with an audience, a turbulent life, and a devoted following that continued long after her death. And, like Garland's, Piaf's life has not been the subject of a major feature film until now. (The 1983 Claude Lelouch film "Édith et Marcel" focused entirely on Piaf's romance with famed boxer Marcel Cerdan; likewise, the 1974 French film "Piaf" told only of the singer's early years. Garland has been played in television movies by Judy Davis and Andrea McArdle, but to my knowledge her eventful life has not made it to the big screen.)

You wonder why it's taken so long for Piaf's oh-so-cinematic story to arrive on-screen, but Dahan's film, fortunately, is worth the wait. Not a chronological biography but a tale that slips enticingly backward and forward in time, it's a rich tribute to the singer known as the "Little Sparrow." Marion Cotillard ("A Good Year," "Love Me If You Dare") plays Piaf as a tiny, slumped-over question mark of a woman who comes to life in front of a microphone. It's a tour-de-force performance, in a colorful and sometimes mesmerizing film.

This is a big story that requires a vast canvas and a confident hand, and at times the film seems overwhelming; the sadness of Piaf's life mirrors the melancholy quality of her singing, and the hint of desperation we see in her smile. (The songs, which include "Non, je ne regrette rien," "Milord" and the title tune, are all archival Piaf recordings, expertly mimed by Cotillard.) Some of the scenes are unabashedly melodramatic, such as when Ste. Theresa speaks to young Edith in a circus camp, or a striking sequence near the end where Edith, hearing tragic news, staggers directly from her bedroom to a concert stage.

This kind of heightened drama might not work in most movies, but it suits its larger-than-life subject: Dahan's "La Vie" is the movie equivalent of a torch song. The metallic velvet of Piaf's voice wraps around us, softening and coloring the tragedies of her story. Cotillard's Edith emerges as fragile yet determined, a sad clown seeking the warmth of a spotlight. (At times, she looks remarkably like Garland.) "You're playing with your life," says a doctor, concerned that an ailing Edith is determined to perform. "So what?," she replies, with the mournful nonchalance of her songs. "You have to play with something."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"La Vie en Rose," with Marion Cotillard, Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Paul Rouve, Gérard Depardieu. Written and directed by Olivier Dahan.

140 minutes. Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, sexual content, brief nudity, language and thematic elements. In French with English subtitles.