Even if you're like me and find most musical biopics depressingly formulaic, you might think Oliver Dahan's Edith Piaf movie is a slight cut above. Sure, it checks off all the genre's requisite ingredients (childhood trauma, drug addiction, troubled relationships), and is about as consistent as its heroine's mental and physical health. But stretches of the film, which traces Piaf's rise from Parisian poverty to international stardom, feel uncommonly—even thrillingly—intimate.

The good stuff in La Vie en Rose follows a dreadful first act, in which Dahan recreates Piaf's miserable childhood in 1920s Paris with such ostentatious "period" detail you feel you could catch consumption just watching it (that's not a compliment). It's when the newly famous Piaf (Marion Cotillard) tours in New York that the movie wakes up: There she meets a fellow French expat, married boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins), who woos her over an uneaten pastrami sandwich. Their fragile romance—alive with the magic and neediness of two lonely foreigners connecting in a new city—strips the chanteuse of her raspy bravado, delicately unveiling the person beneath the genius. Cotillard acts with astounding passion and skill all the way through, but when she plays Piaf's romantic hunger, she's sublime: no longer a mercurial vocal powerhouse, but simply a woman in love.

La Vie en Rose hurtles back and forth through time, hitting all the highlights of Piaf's life in impressionistic fragments, and the result is disorienting and a bit scattershot. We never really get a sense of what drove Piaf artistically, and Dahan doesn't shrug off clichés as easily as he does chronology. Yet that middle section gives the movie an emotional momentum that more or less sees it through; the glimpses of Piaf that we get during breaks from the genre's usual histrionics go a long way.