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June 28/07

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The date at the top of each page  is the day on which the page was started. The more recent reviews are towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: La Vie En Rose (Movie); A Mighty Heart (Movie); Zoli (Novel)

La Vie En Rose (Movie) written by Oliver Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman; directed by Oliver Dahan; starring Marion Cotillard, with Grard Depardieu, Jean-Pierre Martins, Emmanuelle Seigner

If you’re a fan of showbiz bios, this life of Edith Piaff may disconcert you a bit. With its jumping back and forth in time and its many motifs jumbled together, you don’t get a very clear trajectory of the life. Early on, it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on with Edith and her parents and grandmothers. Later, faces pop up from the past and you’re not sure who they are. A husband appears briefly and you have no idea where he comes from in. Toss in a murder, various boyfriends and undifferentiated hangers-on, mix it all together with some arty effects and flashy editing – you get more an impression of a life than a straight-forward biography.

Probably the way that this bio differs from most of the "star is born" genre is that there isn’t much stardom – not much fun, not much glory. It’s a pretty tough slog, for the most part. Hence the irony in the title "La Vie En Rose". Piaf’s vie was anything but. One of the purposes of the movie seems to be to show that, if the star tended to be a coarse bitch at times (the word "guttersnipe" might have been used by elderly relatives of mine), there was plenty of reason to excuse her on the grounds of her wretched upbringing and her many tragedies. In fact, one of the greatest of her sorrows is kept secret until nearly the end of the movie. If, like me, you have but a skimpy knowledge of Edith Piaf’s repretoire, you’re going to keep wondering when That Song is coming. At the very end, as it turns out. You might almost say the whole movie is a build-up to that climax. And it’s worth the wait.

You end up with a portrait of a plucky, courageous human being who, in spite of it all, clung to her sentimental belief in love. Marion Cotillard is prettier than Piaff but she brings to life a vivid and unforgettable character who, for all I know, may be just like the real thing. Among various tidbits of character, we find that Piaff was nuts about knitting. (cf Joan Sutherland and her needlepoint?) It was even more intriguing to find out that Edith was a life-long devotee of my old friend St. Thrse of Lisieux. But I’d have to say that poor Edith’s life stands as a lousy advertisement for St. Thrse’s intercessory powers.

Rating: C+ (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

A Mighty Heart (Movie) written by John Orloff, based on the book by Mariane Pearl; directed by Michael Winterbottom; starring Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan; with Jillian Armenante, Will Patton

Let’s say you want to make a movie about the 2002 kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist, in Pakistan. Rather than invent a lot of stuff about his side of the ordeal, which nobody knows, you decide to tell the story from his wife's point of view, as recounted in her book. Your problem is, for the first several days of the incident, nobody had much idea what was happening. Various officials congregated in the Pearls’ house in Karachi and tried to make sense of it all. Mostly their efforts involved tracking emails and cell phone calls. That doesn’t make for very gripping drama. So your style of film-making becomes the drama: hand-held camera, very brief clips, constant coming and going, new people being introduced all the time, past mixed with the present, teeming streets in disparate locations – to the point that viewers get thoroughly confused. With all the wild rumours and disinformation coming down, it almost verges on  parody. Given the difficulty of deciphering the actors’ accents and trying to master their tricky (to Western ears) names, it can make for very hectic watching.

But is it worth it?

In the end, yes. When the cops start rounding up suspects, you settle into somewhat more coherent story-telling. And, although there isn’t the development of relationships that you get in a conventional movie, you do eventually get to know some of the officials involved. The head of the Pakistan police (Irfan Khan) stands out as a decent, if harried, individual. The representative of the American consulate (Will Patton) also has a distinctive presence. I particularly liked Jillian Armenante in the small role of an FBI type. Her blunt, forth-right manner made a fresh impression.

All the commotion at the beginning of the movie means that the longer, quieter scenes, when they come, stand out all the more.That’s particularly true of the dreaded climax. Here, the sketchy, documentary style pays off. (I was reminded of the chilling realism of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.) People stand around not knowing what to say or do. Nothing feels scripted. It’s all very awkward. The various people gathered around Mariane Pearl (Angelina Jolie) look like fish out of water, which is the way people often behave in tragic situations. Meanwhile, the woman who has been the still centre of the movie and who has kept supernatural control of herself (mostly) rises to superb heights of courage.

I owe Angelina Jolie an apology. I enjoyed her in Mr. And Mrs. Smith but can’t recall seeing her in anything else. Let’s say she seemed the type of actress who wasn’t likely to appear in my kind of movie. My impression was that what she brought to the screen was something other than a subtle, intelligent acting ability. In this movie, however, she so convincingly conveys the essence of an extraordinary woman that, come the ending, I wanted to kiss her hand in homage. And I couldn’t say whether it was Mariane Pearl or the actress I was worshipping. It didn’t seem to matter; they were one and the same.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")

 

Zoli (Novel) by Colum McCann, 2006

You’ve got to give Colum McCann credit for not sticking to the tried-and-true autobiographical material in his novels. In Dancer (see "Books" page, towards the bottom of the navigation bar), he gave us the life of Rudolf Nureyev, as told from the points of view of various people. Zoli recounts the odyssey of a gypsy who became something of a celebrity poet and singer in her native Czechoslovakia. There are various points of view, although not as diverse as in Dancer. Some sections are in Zoli’s voice, others describe her adventures in the third person, and one section purports to be the witness of an English scholar who wanted to be her lover.

Mr. McCann’s research must have been very extensive. You find out a lot about the lives of the Romani people particularly as inter-woven with the twentieth-century history of Czechoslovakia – all of it completely new to me. Learning about the inhumane treatment of the Romani by the establishment gave my social conscience a good jolt.

But I didn’t enjoy the book. There is something plodding and earnest about it. I even extended the library loan to take a longer look at the book and try to figure out why it didn’t work for me. The only way I can sum it up is that the writer never seemed to find a tone of voice that pulled me in. I checked the back cover to see if Zoli was a historical person, as if that would mean we should know something about her; presumably, then, some sense of duty would carry my reading forward. But no, Zoli is a fictional creation, although her character is partly based, as Mr. McCann says in his notes, on a woman whose life was somewhat similar.

The section by the would-be lover was particularly hard going. One thing that may work against it is that the narrative isn’t very focused. Zoli pops up from time to time, then disappears. So it’s hard to make an emotional connection with her. She comes off like one of those wildly dramatic, elusive characters whom we should find mesmerizing but who are actually pretty annoying. By the end of the book, her interesting experiences as an old lady made me wish that I cared more about her than I did.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com