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Voice Lessons

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If "Ray" and "Walk the Line" were aided by their prerecordings, "La Vie en Rose," about the legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf, is nearly overcome by them. Scenes may be marvelous, trite, witty, too long, too short or too corny, but you hardly care. All are swept aside by the swell of Edith's voice, which could launch a thousand biopics.

Without the voice, this A-plus would probably rate a respectable B, despite a breathless performance by the lead, Marion Cotillard as the diminutive Piaf. The plot sticks closely to the standards of a now-staple genre. Edith has a hard, substance-abusing life, which starts early and is never mitigated by success. One wonders whether it's all true. Much of it feels like hagiography, a collection of histrionic episodes bent on capturing the spirit rather than shabby truth.

The problem is when the scenes that ring true about her life feel no more real. All flit effortlessly back and forth between an intoxicated, exuberant youth and years of decline. But in only one way does the high tempo really work — to drive home the sadness that Edith's career was so fleeting. She died at 47.

If the great is her music, the good of "La Vie en Rose" is that we get some bad, too. Edith can be a vicious victim. Around the time of her first cabaret conquest, when she should be honored, she tells a flattering fan she can't stand her "ugly mug." A few scenes later she drops her greatest mentor like annoying rubbish. A handler pleads with her during another of her fits of selfishness, when she stands up artist Jean Cocteau. If I can't do something, she retorts to his chiding, what's the good of being Edith Piaf?

"La Vie en Rose" begs us to turn the question around. What's the good of not being Edith Piaf? Does the voice matter only in contrast to the awful life, or in spite of it? Could one be independent of the other, putting biopics out of business? Or would Edith have shined just as brightly without the gutter behind her? These are not questions for a movie concerned with hero worship. And in the end "La Vie en Rose" overwhelms you, convinces you such thoughts are fruitless. The voice is what matters, and the fact that it survived two world wars is worth worshipping. The movie's two-plus hours feel like nothing, and you walk out humming. (R) 140 min. S

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