Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Sour notes

In interviews, Olivier Dahan, the writer-director of La Vie En Rose, compares its subject, France's "little sparrow," Edith Piaf, to Billie Holiday. It's an apt comparison, one that extends to the films made from their lives. Like Lady Sings the Blues, La Vie En Rose is pretty much a mess--held together, and made riveting, by a brilliant, pulled-from-the-guts performance by its lead. I never would have figured the decoratively pretty Marion Cotillard (A Good Year, A Very Long Engagement) for the earthy, drug-addled Piaf, but, aided by terrific lip-syncing, she gives herself over entirely to the role. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote, say, has nothing on this, except for a coherent script in his corner.

Dahan's prior credit was the fast-paced, nonsensical sequel Crimson Rivers II: Angels of the Apocalypse. From there to a life of Piaf was a stretch, but the means are pretty much the same: String the audience out on sensational scenes, and put logic aside. There's a love of filmmaking here, which pays off in one or two bravura sequences, but it's misapplied. Rather than the usual soup-to-nuts biopic approach, Dahan says he wanted the film to be impressionistic, to flow from the songs. Fine, but I really wish I had my laptop with me, set to Piaf's Wikipedia entry, so I could have kept better track of who Gerard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Seigner were playing and what they were doing as they popped in and out of the movie.

La Vie En Rose, which Picturehouse opens June 8, plays on, furiously but somehow listlessly, for 140 minutes, as we're whisked from one highlight to another in Piaf's but hyper-active 47-year life. It works in quieter scenes, like Piaf's doomed romance with boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean Pierre-Martins), where we get more of the information we need and can let it sink in a bit; that segment closes with a killer tracking shot that ends on a concert stage, the film's strongest realization of Dahan's emotions-first style of direction. Too much of it, though, can be boiled down to Michael Musto's cracking wise about it in the Village Voice, that "the movie basically consists of a series of people saying, 'Edith, brace yourself for some bad news,'" as she falls in and out of addiction and on and off stages in Europe and America.(The good news, like her role in the French Resistance, is entirely ignored as the movie racks up the catastrophes with family, men, and pills.) We don't need another musty biopic, but clarity has its virtues. Still, for Cotillard's titanic effort, La Vie En Rose demands attention, if cautiously.

Speaking of jazz-age wrecks, New York's Film Forum is coincidentally reviving Bruce Weber's portrait of the glacially cool Chet Baker, Let's Get Lost, beginning June 8 for a three-week run. A 1988 Academy Award nominee for best documentary, the examination/autopsy of the singer/trumpeter (he died, in a mysterious fall from a hotel window close to Amsterdam's drug trade, before it opened) premiered at the theater, and has been out of public circulation for 14 years. Josh Hartnett is threatening a Walk The Line-style biopic, but this is the real deal, as filtered through the dreamily black-and-white lens of the photographer/director.

We see Baker, his idol, in period performance and film footage, including a role in an Italian flick that I found out later was directed by future horrormeister Lucio Fulci. The hard-faced, Jan-Michael Vincent-like car wreck he became, after a lifetime of hard drug use (speedballs were his candidly admitted favorite), turns up for interviews, and to croak out a few songs, like Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue," for a coterie of young admirers including Chris Isaak (the inheritor of his tradition, if not lifestyle) and former Tim Burton muse Lisa Marie. The film inspired me to pick up a Chet Baker collection on CD, but his verveless, monochromatic performances of standards (rock might have been his true calling, but he never heard it) are a drag, man, after a few numbers. (His "Look for the Silver Lining" is used on Turner Classic Movies.) Baker's thin voice was pretty much used up by the late 1980s, but he continued to exert a certain look-don't-touch fascination, an arms-length seductiveness that was clearly difficult for his wives and family members to break free from. Spiffed up for this new release, Let's Get Lost continues to cast a spell from the twilight underside of cool.

New York's IFC Center continues its "First Films" revival series with Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche (1985), which, like Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, has never been the easiest movie to see. Like Burnett's film, which enjoyed a successful run at the center, it looks as if Mala Noche will be getting an official DVD release (the Janus Films label, a harbinger of Criterion Collection release, is appended to the new print) but if you can try to see the film here. The rough-hewn black-and-white cinematography (with a playful burst into color during the closing credits) has been digitally done over, giving the film, which Van Sant shot in the rain-slicked streets of Portland, OR, for $25,000, an elegance I doubt it ever had before.

The film, about a liquor store clerk's ill-starred but not entirely doomed look for love in the city's Mexican immigrant community, has a certain kinship to My Own Private Idaho, and an open-hearted and winning lead performance from Tim Streeter, who promptly disappeared from the screen. So, too, in his own way, has Van Sant, who has made himself as marginal as his characters and whose recent run of films given over to ciphers and ennui excites few outside of Cannes. I miss the Van Sant who made Mala Noche, part of that most fertile time in American independent cinema, and back again as a reminder.


Cinepinion said...

Honestly, I don't really miss the van Sant who made Mala Noche; his work's gotten so strong in recent years, he's practically inventing his own film language (!), as J. Hoberman said. Even though I've never been to Cannes, maybe I fall into that crowd? Those early arthousers, good as they might be, don't hold up the way they used to.

That said, I found Let's Get Lost to be disappointing; artful and intelligent, sure, but just as equally rambling and soporific. But I guess in that way it mirrors its subject's music!

(Forgive the joke, I actually love "The Best of Chet Baker Sings", which alternates between upbeat and downbeat numbers.)

I have reviews of both films here. The real gem in New York right now, for me, is also at Film Forum: 12:08 East of Bucharest. It couldn't be a better film!


Robert Cashill said...

Thanks, cinepinion. Like your blog.

I don't know; the language that Last Days is in pretty much put me to sleep, and though I've heard good things about Van Sant's Paranoid Park I'm not jumping for joy over the prospect of seeing it. Of course joy is not really part of the aesthetic.

Once gives off that 80s indie vibe, which resonates strongly with me, maybe because I was in college and felt in the middle of the happening.

(Funny; I loved She's Gotta Have It when it came out, but it looked pretty gray-haired and bewhiskered when I watched it a decade later. I tuned into it again recently and was captivated all over again. There's no explaining it. Maybe because we pretty much live where it was shot.)

For all the films I have seen, which go unblogged for one reason or another, I haven't seen <12:08, which is surely not to be confused with 1408. I'll do my best to make it over to FF before it closes, though perhaps it will move on.