If Johnny Cash and Ray Charles deserved musical biography treatment, certainly Edith Piaf, the Little Sparrow, does too—she rose from a most unhappy childhood and suffered a difficult youth to become an icon in France and an international star, though a difficult woman beset by personal problems, and she died painfully before her time. It’s the sort of tragic, soapoperatic show-biz story that practically begs to be dramatized, and the task of bringing her life to the screen has been realized with considerable aplomb by writer-director Olivier Dahan in “La Vie en rose.” The film is rather fussily structured and ostentatiously virtuosic, and one might wish that, though it’s already long at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it had told us even more. But thanks to a masterly central performance by Marion Cotillard, it’s almost worthy of its subject.

As fashioned by Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman, the picture tells Piaf’s story in a fractured fashion that toys overmuch with chronology, but the fragments coalesce into a number of clear “acts,” as it were. The first, following a brief scene of the artist’s collapse at a 1959 concert in New York, covers the childhood years, when Edith (played at five by Manon Chevallier and at eight by Pauline Burlet) finds herself abandoned by her singer-mother (Clotilde Courau) and deposited by her contortionist father (Jean-Paul Rouve) with his mother (Catherine Allegret), a madame in Normandy, at whose brothel she’s cared for by one of the whores, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner), who even nurses her through a bout of blindness until her father retrieves her. As father and daughter perform in the streets of Paris, little Edith’s voice proves popular, and her career begins.

But she’s hardly yet a professional, except in the way that Titine was. Along with her drunken pal Momone (Sylvie Testud), Edith (the role now taken up by Cotillard) haunts the streets, presumably turning tricks, though we’re only shown her singing for cash to buy booze and drugs. It’s while she’s crooning on a street corner that she’s discovered by club owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu), who appreciates her raw talent and puts her onstage, where she becomes an immediate sensation under the sobriquet of “Piaf” that he gives her. Unfortunately, when Leplee is murdered, her underworld connections are blamed, and the public turns against her. Her career is resurrected, however, by stern coach Raymond Asso (Marc Barbe), who gives her professional voice training and helps her recover her popularity, and then some.

Piaf’s French stardom eventually brings her to the United States, where after initial audience disinterest she’s turned into an “in” thing by a favorable notice from Virgil Thomson in the Times. She’s even visited post-show by none other than the legendary Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Sihol). But the person she meets in America that truly changes her life is boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), with whom she enters a torrid affair though he’s a married man. It’s his death in a 1949 plane crash that sends Edith into a downward spiral, marked by drug addiction and escalating illness. She becomes an old woman before her time, dying at 47 in 1963.

There are some aspects of Piaf’s life that are unaccountably skimmed over in Dahan’s treatment. There’s no mention, for example, of the fact that in her late teens she had a daughter who died in infancy. And one might like to see at least some mention of the wartime years, when she was involved in the Resistance, which aren’t treated even in passing. There are also a few moments that come across as generic and obvious in the staging—like the inevitable one when a drunken Momone, feeling unappreciated, finally explodes at her demanding friend. And occasionally the picture gets too baroque, reaching for visual effects that don’t quite come off: the scene in which Edith can’t accept the reality of Cerdan’s death, for example, done in an artily florid way to express her disorientation, is better in theory than in execution. And why are the titles noting places and dates “translated” for English-speaking viewers? It’s unnecessary and slightly insulting.

But the flaws are minor compared to the film’s strengths, which certainly start with Cotillard’s magisterial performance, which captures Piaf from her twenties to her forties both in appearance and in personality. (Kudos are due makeup artists Didier Lavergne and Loulia Sheppard for their contribution in the later reels.) It’s a very big, oversized turn but a great one, mirroring the diminutive singer’s own flamboyant persona and going far beyond mere impersonation; Hollywood would do well to remember it next spring during the award season. Everyone else in the cast plays second fiddle to her, but they’re all excellent in her shadow. Dahan keeps the story moving along well while giving Cotillard the necessary leeway, and the period settings are beautifully captured by production designer Olivier Raoux, art directors Cecile Vatelot, Stephene Cressand and Petra Kobedova, costume designer Marit Allen and cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata, whose widescreen images are positively luminous. Mention should also be made of Richard Marizy’s editing, which keeps the film’s complex structure clear, and Christopher Gunning’s background score, which fits perfectly with the numerous—and expertly done—solo numbers (Jil Aigrot provides Piaf’s voice).

The result is a film that does Edith Piaf’s life, troubled and cut far too short, and her artistry, unique and unforgettable, something very close to justice.