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La Vie en Rose' Conjures Ghost of French Chanteuse

Wow, what an amazing biopic about legendary French chanteuse Édith Piaf. “La Vie en Rose” is one of the best movies I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s a leading contender for the best of the year. In fact, I want to see it again. Likewise in France, flocks have hit the theaters, including hordes of young people that skeptics thought would never be interested in Piaf, seemingly a subject for older people.

If you missed it at Filmfest DC’s opening night, where French writer-director Olivier Dahan introduced it, don’t even think of letting it slip by in the theater during its release. The widescreen epic deserves to be seen in its full glory on the big screen with a great sound system worthy of Piaf’s grand music.

Dahan is relatively unknown in the United States. His previous movie “Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse,” written and produced by Luc Besson, didn’t even get a U.S. theatrical release. No matter, “La Vie en Rose” puts him squarely on the map as a formidable filmmaker.

Of course, it helps that Piaf’s life story is a universal saga of struggle and loss—even after she made it big. Dahan’s elegant direction keeps the viewer entranced as we progress through her evolution from a timid hick into a regal—and brash—world icon. Even at the top, Piaf remained the vulnerable little bird that inspired her stage name.

Centering the film is a tour-de-force performance by Marion Cotillard (notable as Tina Lombardi in “A Very Long Engagement”). She fully inhabits the specter of Piaf in a portrayal spanning the tragic figure’s entire adult life. Other solid performances come from the likes of Emmanuelle Seigner, Gérard Depardieu, Pascal Greggory, Jean-Paul Rouve, and Jean-Pierre Martins.

La Vie en Rose (French with subtitles; 110 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., June 15

4.5 out of 5 stars

Besson’s ‘Angel-A’

French writer-director Luc Besson’s record of box office hits, primarily with his action spectacles, makes him a formidable challenger to Hollywood’s encroachment on French cinema and culture. At Sundance 2007, “Angel-A” screened to an appreciative audience, largely men in their 20s, a key Besson demographic.

Being the producer, Besson can get away with shooting “Angel-A” in black and white, which I guess is supposed to be sort of film noir-ish. His success allows him to make movies with an element of artistry, which are often highly regarded by the media and festival circuit.

Rie Rasmussen, a leggy Danish actress (as well as model, artist and filmmaker), stars as Angela, a suitably enigmatic blonde befitting the noir prototype. She mysteriously appears just in time to effectively prevent a down-and-out Parisian con artist’s suicide. Actually, she jumps off the bridge first, beating André (Jamel Debbouze) to the punch. He follows, but he ends up heroically rescuing her from drowning.

André’s having a really bad day. He can’t even kill himself in peace. But Angela is greatly indebted to André. She teaches him to view life differently and inspires him to make changes for the better. Over time, André ends up falling for Angela—big surprise there. But is she an angel sent from heaven to save him? Or is she a femme fatale?

In a way, the storyline is reminiscent of “The Fifth Element,” in which the appearance of a beautiful woman revolutionizes the life of a troubled man. Besson’s distinctive sweeping camera work captures memorable shots of Paris, establishing an appropriate backdrop for the story of two troubled people. Besson claims “Angel-A” will be his final film. If so, it’s a fitting coda to a uniquely distinctive career.

Angel-A (French; 88 min.; scope) Opens Fri., June 22

4 out of 5 stars

Pleasing ‘Once’

“Once” was a sleeper hit at Sundance 2007, generating plenty of positive buzz. It charmed audiences—and a lot of critics, too—taking home the Audience Award for World Cinema. In line with Sundance’s indie tradition, “Once” embraces the real-life grittiness of modern-day Dublin. Yet it’s an Irish musical, of all things!

But writer-director John Carney eschews the cheesiness of the old-time Hollywood musicals. Instead of characters spontaneously breaking into song and dance, “Once” features two singer-songwriters (played by real ones) for whom music is a normal part of life. And the plot is executed pleasingly as well.

When a Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) hears a struggling street musician (Glen Hansard), she persuades him to record his talented work in a studio. They form a close bond but remain platonic, both having distant significant others still palpable on the horizon. Their connection is all about the beautiful music they make together, and it’s worth hearing their song.

Once (English; 88 min.)

4 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International Film Clips for detailed listings available at press time.

SilverDocs Like every June, the big show is SilverDocs (June 12-17), AFI/Discovery Channel’s rising festivals that has grown into one of the leading documentary film fests in the nation—and even the world, I daresay. This year’s theme is “Beyond Belief.” The Charles Guggenheim Symposium (June 14) honors Jonathan Demme for his lifetime excellence in documentaries.

Opening SilverDocs is “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” attended by Seeger’s family and perhaps the man himself, health permitting. The closing night features “Arctic Tale,” an East Coast premiere. The Washington Diplomat didn’t have the opportunity to screen selections before press time, save for the fine films that played at Sundance.

The International Documentary Conference highlights include “The Future of Real 2.0: Rights, Revenue and Readiness” (June 13); “Filmanthropy” (June 14 keynote speech from AOL Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis, the Medici-like patron-producer who commissioned “Nanking”); “Spotlight on Discovery”; “A Blue Print on Fundraising for Documentaries”; “Producing for U.S. Public Television”; environmentally responsible production practices; and priorities of critical industry players. (877) DOCS-TIX, www.silverdocs.com

Goethe-Institut The Second Annual Asian-European Short Film Showcase, “Love in Asia and Europe” (June 4-15), is focusing on the theme of romantic love and features films from Japan, France, Korea, Italy, China, Spain, India and Germany.

“Politics in Film” showcases features (June 18-July 14) that examine the fight for rights and opportunities that many others take for granted. (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/washington

National Museum of Women in the Arts “Women Directors at the Oscars” showcases the fine work of the only three women ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar: Lina Wertmüller’s “Seven Beauties” (June 20); Jane Campion’s “The Piano” (July 18); and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” (July 11). Also screening is Cristina Comencini’s “La Bestia Nel Cuore (Don’t Tell)” (June 27), which was last year’s Foreign Language Film nominee from Italy. All but Campion are of Italian descent, modern heiresses to the artists featured in the exhibit “Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque.” (202) 783-7370, www.nmwa.org

AFI Silver AFI Silver Theatre presents “Rediscover Northern Ireland” (through June 3), which complements the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (June 27-July 8). Also on hand are “50 Years of Janus Films-Part 1” (through July); “John Wayne Centennial” (through July 4), with classic Westerns, often set in the shadow of Mexico; and a series on Buster Keaton (through July 1), featuring silent comedies with live accompaniment from pianist Ray Brubacher or the group Boister. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

Korean Film Festival DC 2007 The Korean Film Festival continues through June 27 at AFI Silver Theatre and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, supported by the Korean Film Council, the Korea Foundation and the U.S.-Korea Business Council. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver (202) 783-7370, www.nmwa.org

Czech Modernism 1920–1940 At the National Gallery of Art, uncover the ancestors of the Czech New Wave with “Czech Modernism 1920–1940 (through June 17), presented in conjunction with the Czech Center, New York, the National Film Archive in Prague and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film.shtm

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999