Song Sung Bleu: Piaf’s good cheer is undercut by tragedy.

This film is the extravagant biopic Kevin Spacey wanted Beyond the Sea to be—which is not altogether a good thing. Writer-director Olivier Dahan has an advantage over Spacey: His movie is about Edith Piaf, a French national icon, rather than the inconsequential Bobby Darin. Piaf’s enduring esteem and unbelievably miserable life might seem to justify the ripest romanticism, yet Dahan manages to go too far. He frantically jumbles the chronology, waltzes the camera through the action, and cuts like crazy, as if attempting to present the singer’s 47-year life as her own fever dream. Still, Dahan made two choices that redeem La Vie en Rose, even for those who are not Piaf devotees: He used the singer’s powerful original recordings wherever possible and cast the extraordinary Marion Cotillard in the central role. The actress, who played Russell Crowe’s feisty Provençal lover in 2006’s A Good Year, dominates the film, even though she’s not in the childhood scenes and is unrecognizable in the sequences that depict Piaf as an orange-haired older woman, contorted by arthritis and scourged by alcohol and morphine. The movie begins with the singer’s onstage breakdown in New York, four years before her death in 1963, and then seems to go every direction at once. Abandoned by her mother during World War I, while her father was at the front, little Edith was sent to her grandmother’s Normandy brothel. There she went blind temporarily and adopted as her model Thérèse de Lisieux, patron saint of self-abrogating French Catholics. So it’s only to be expected that her subsequent life is marinated in tragedy, with her artistic triumphs undercut by disease, addiction, and the sudden demises of her manager, her lover, and others. (Dahan reserves a crucial early fatality for a concluding gut punch.) Early in her career, Piaf is tutored by a man who admires her mighty voice but complains that she’s “not living the song.” Employing her signature tune, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (“I Regret Nothing”), a testament to saintly fortitude, La Vie en Rose is Dahan’s affirmation that Piaf did indeed live her cabaret laments.

More from WCP