La Vie en Rose and the Queer Art of Lip Syncing

Movies Features Marion Cotillard
La Vie en Rose and the Queer Art of Lip Syncing

Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” is a nostalgic song. The lyrics long for the rose-colored world of familiar love. The song also packages nostalgia itself as shorthand for the WWII era, timeless romance and bygone peace. The song is so effective that we’re nostalgic for a film that’s not as good as we remember.

La Vie en Rose, the 2007 biopic of the great glottal chanteuse Edith Piaf, starring Marion Cotillard, structures its timeline so that we’re disoriented from time, not sure how close we are to the end. This nonlinearity would be effective if the scenes we saw were interesting. But alas, they are rehearsed and dour versions of every other Tragic Diva story. And because director Olivier Dahan shows us what happens at the beginning of the film, watching the movie fills us with boredom while we wait for something to happen.

That something is Cotillard. Her speaking performance of Piaf as a toadish gerbil is hilarious, effective and a marvelous example of control, yet it gets lost in the one-dimensionality of the narrative. Still, Cotillard’s architecture for her character allows her to become multi-dimensional. Her younger Piaf is properly doe-eyed and shrunken, straightening as Piaf blossoms, then hunching as she withers prematurely from morphine dependence. Underneath the red cotton-ball wig is an artist puppeteering her face and voice without dropping a thread.

Cotillard’s mastery of articulation creeps to the forefront when she’s lip-syncing. Her numbers as Piaf show an actress deeply in tune with the orchestra of her face. By pulling, lifting and straining—replicating the mechanics of singing—she brings us further into Edith Piaf. Most biopics of singers want us to know the human behind the voice, but Cotillard’s performance is different: It focuses on the body that contained, controlled, produced and lost the voice.

It’s the industry standard for actors performing musical numbers to lip sync to playback. It retains the “purity” of the sound and guarantees a “good’’ vocal performance each take. But this comes with a double bind. Even if the performer is fortunate enough to record their own vocals when it comes to shooting the scene, they still have to mold their acting around emotional performances an artist imprinted in songs recorded some time ago. Cotillard’s sparrow is in a gilded cage of the film’s own making. She must plan her emotional build-ups and come-downs around Piaf’s decades-old feelings, archived in audio. She’s unlike her fellow lip sync assassin, Angela Bassett, who had the benefit of having her person-character alive to lay down new vocals to fit What’s Love Got to Do with It’s emotional beats.

But Cotillard does have something others don’t: A third voice. In the history of actresses earning Oscar nominations for playing a singer, most queens lip-sync to their own recordings. Diana Ross, Sissy Spacek, Reese Witherspoon and Renee Zellweger all received acclaim for such performances. Along with Cotillard, Bassett is one of the few actresses critics have praised for lip-syncing to non-original recordings. But unlike Cotillard, Bassett got to put that Yale education to work and studied Tina Turner in the flesh. Only Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom uses a substitute voice, lip-syncing to Maxayn Lewis’ renditions of Rainey’s songs.

Cotillard’s Edith Piaf is a mixture of all three. Piaf’s original recordings are used once she’s established as La Mome, known for her unique style. But as she’s growing and developing, Cotillard lip-syncs to new vocals provided by Jil Aigrot, imitating Piaf’s style but with emotions suited for the story. Though Cotillard was preparing to sing the whole thing, time only allowed her a chance to provide a few entrances and exits to numbers. Cotillard’s meticulous embodiment houses all of these voices. Her performance is what a theologian might call tripartite: Three parts, each individual in themselves, congealing into one holy entity.

And this is significant not just because Cotillard had to negotiate two other people’s performances to play one character, but also for what that negotiation represents. With the Bush Era ending in 2007, the transition from the mid to late ‘00s was one whose relationship to the past was fracturing. Over 60 years since WWII, this fabled time in American history was passing from memory into nostalgia. The primary participants of the time were largely gone, with their children and grandchildren to tell the stories. In America, the optimism of the early 2000s had given way to the ennui and numbness of forever wars and the looming economic depression of the mid 2000s. The past seemed even more irrevocably distant.

Using Piaf recordings in concert with “ghost” vocals for her early and acoustic numbers, Cotillard and Dahan successfully negotiate a nostalgia in which the past is left pristine, yet also give it a touch of life that brings us closer to the human experience of the past. This Piaf has breaks and flaws; she isn’t just the soaring voice on the Victrola.

That’s what all the performers we discussed are seeking. No matter the method—recording their own, using recorded tracks or “ghost” vocals—they’re after a performance of realism and total control over the dynamics of their character. But Cotillard is different. She surrenders. She allows herself to become a vessel for two distinct voices and articulates them as if they were her own. Cotillard’s selfless (and self-less) performance specifically highlights the uncanniness of knowing history in which the voice of the past is at once theirs and ours.

One of the beautiful things about lip-synching is that it invites participation with the voice of the past. It asks us to feel it in our bones and muscles, to think of contexts and emotions, then re-perform them. What’s queer about Cotillard’s performance is how she—in high Piaf drag, with her pencil-thin eyebrows and perilously high hairline—lip syncs to not just Piaf but also to Aigrot, an artist who also makes a living impersonating Piaf. In La Vie en Rose, Cotillard takes an already camp character built by Piaf and her legacy, then drags up recordings by a Piaf impersonator before soaring renditions of Piaf’s grandiose hits. It’s drag-on-drag-on-drag. Her queer public is likely to endure forever because of this performance, and for the same reasons that queer folks love the art of lip-synching. Both demonstrate a channeling of identity and a production of self: Queer methods of telling a story from the past, heightening the experience and thus giving us new sensations of history.

B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.

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