It's dirty business being a "star" these days, and times never seemed to change. Whether it was drug and alcohol addiction (Edith Piaf) or the incessant badgering of a community of fans displeased with their icon's choice of musical styles, political nonchalance and word games (Bob Dylan), the tides of popular attention can shift dramatically and unexpectedly. Two films examine these different artists in non-traditional ways, and if one is more successful than the other, it's not for a lack of artistic integrity (of the "star" in question or of the actual director) but only because I'm more familiar with one presence over the other.
Olivier Dahan's "La Vie En Rose" charts the rise and fall of "the soul of France" singer Edith Piaf. From her lowly, poverty-stricken childhood and nurturing years in a bordello to her faded-out and sickly self in the 60's, no emotion or biopic trope is left unturned. That's by no means a slap-in-the-face to the film. In fact, the performance of Marion Cotillard, deservedly, has received magnanimous praise from all four corners of the critical world and an Oscar nomination is most likely pending. "La Vie En Rose" just falls short of arousing the imagination and shaking the dust off its representation of France from 1918 to the late 50's. By contrast, director Todd Haynes has chosen as his subject a musical figure just as great and imposing in his own time and place as Edith Piaf was in her time; and Haynes dares to blow up the traditional biopic narrative in favor of an avantgarde pummeling of the eyes and ears. It's not a coincidence that neither film would be quite as impressive without their centerpiece performer being smoldering, explosive personalities of their own. And both Dahan and Haynes fervently re-produce the pleasure and the pain experienced by Piaf and Bob Dylan (even though Dylan is only actually glimpsed once in the film as his music permeates the entire affair). While "I'm Not There" is my personal favorite of the two, "La Vie En Rose" and "I'm Not There" add immense characteristics to the biopic that felt (already) overexposed after "Ray" tailed the heels of "Walk the Line". And that is certainly a good thing.
Technically, Dahan and Haynes' films couldn't look or sound any more different. While Dahan profits in the blacks and browns of France, Haynes prefers a more colorful and manic schematic. "La Vie En Rose" fills itself with dark interiors so much, that about halfway through, I begin to wonder if each scene wasn't initially constructed in the dark and they just kept adding candles and lighted corners to round out the visual aura of the scene. Comparatively, "I'm Not There" jumps from fuzzy black and white to ethereal natural greens and blues with the audacity of a musical DJ, creating a separate look and feel for each persona inhabiting the world around 'Bob Dylan. It's no surprise that one of the films producers is Steven Soderbergh, an artist whose made a lifetime out of specific color tints for each strand of his multi-narrative efforts.
Acting is another story. The shifting perspectives of 'Bob Dylan' are given weight through six different actors portraying a critical point in Dylan's busy life. Ben Whishaw is the confessional Dylan, spending the entirety of his section answering questions directly to the camera as if locked before an inquisition. Marcus Carl Franklin is the young Dylan, discovering his roots by train-hopping and evolving his musical style based on blues records and Woody Guthrie. Christian Bale is Jack/John, the Dylan who reached cult folksinger fame and later rejected all his fame and fortune by converting to Christianity in the late 70's. Heath Ledger is Jack Rollins, the Dylan lost in movie-fame status and the persona who receives the greatest emotional arch in the film through his failing marriage to a composite wife played by Charlotte Gainesbourge. Perhaps the most praised section of the film belongs to Cate Blanchett (having another monster year as a fearless actor who sees no boundaries in the range of her acting choices) as Jude. Here is the Dylan who went electric and shocked the musical paradigms, embarked on a disastrous England tour and eventually got mixed up in the fast and furious heyday of the 60's pop phenomenon. The most challenging and cryptic section of "I'm Not There" belongs to Richard Gere as Dylan-as-Billy The Kid, dressed up in full western wear and rambling around in Riddle, Missouri where's he caught up in the land-grabbing scheme of Governor Garrett played by Bruce Greenwood, who also locks horns with Blanchett's Jude as a BBC news correspondent. While each section conjures up varying degrees of success, the overall mood and energy of "I'm Not There" lapses into a wild and spirited pastiche of 60's pop and avant garde filmmaking. There are more than a few winks to Bergman, Fellini, Pennebaker (naturally), Godard, Warhol and Peckinpah. While there's alot going on inside the various heady trips of "I'm Not There", Marion Cotillard has it a little easier. She's only required to portray one person, although the mood shifts and drug addictions that populate within Edith once she hits it big requires Cotillard to wear several faces. And that's the overwhelming pleasure of both films- the void that ordinary people fall into and the shifting faces that society forces them to hide behind. Piaf coped through addiction and temper flares whereas Dylan retreated from the world.
Both "La Vie En Rose" and "I'm Not There" taught me something about their respective artists. Granted, going into Piaf's life, I never very little (ashamedly) about her. In fact, I wonder if alot of the world didn't learn about her through Tom Hank's soliloquy about her in that calm scene in "Saving Private Ryan" before all hells breaks loose. It's Piaf's voice that gives the American soldiers comfort before their impending doom. I did know alot about Dylan and his music before going into "I'm Not There" which, perhaps, allowed me more fun in the chaotic experimental scrambling of his life, words and sounds. While Piaf's voice is mesmerizing, it's not the driving force behind "La Vie En Rose". Her destructive fall from soulful grace is the overriding theme of the film and even though Dahan does his best to modernize the film through the ubiquitous use of a time-shifting narrative (1918 one minute, 1963 on her deathbed in the next, back to the heyday of glitz in 1936 etc.) it sours the film with a been-there-done-that attitude. "I'm Not There" on the other hand, gives us a dazzling and imaginative treatise on Dylan that exceeds any expectations. Confusing one minute, euphoric the next, "I'm Not There" rattles along like a fever dream and it features some of the most exquisite images flowing against the music of Bob Dylan you'll ever see. While it can be overloading at times (and any film that requires a "Official Guide to the Movie" handed out by the movie theater elicits a what-the-hell feeling), the glory is in Haynes' brilliant re-visualization of the many lives of Dylan. One scene in particular, building up to Jude's (Blanchett) entrance at the now infamous Newport Jazz Festival, displays the film's articulate visual and audible design as Jude/Dylan goes electric. It inserts a quick imaginative cut of what it must've felt like to be in the audience that day. And that's only one example of Todd Haynes' magical outlook on life and art throughout "I'm Not There". There are a dozen others I could mention. While "La Vie En Rose" traffics in a musical life just as polarizing as "I'm Not There", its results are dramatically less. I wonder what Todd Haynes could do with Edith Piaf? Barbies dolls again perhaps?