She’s one of the year’s first real Oscar contenders, which is no small feat considering how few Americans will recognize Marion Cotillard when they see “La Vie en rose.” Even in her native France, where Cotillard co-starred in the first three installments of Luc Besson’s hugely successful “Taxi” franchise, the actress was not yet a big enough name to satisfy “Rose’s” co-producers.

But director Olivier Dahan wrote his Edith Piaf biopic with the young starlet specifically in mind. When the financiers balked, Dahan scaled back the budget and moved forward with Cotillard. But that meant an even greater challenge for the actress, since she would not have the luxury of playing the French chanteuse’s life in chronological order.

“When I saw that the fourth day of shooting for me was a scene in 1960 when she hears the song ‘No Regrets,’ I was really scared,” Cotillard says. But getting the climax out of the way early proved an unexpected blessing. “If we had saved the aging for the end of the movie, I would have been paralyzed with fear.”

Within the first two weeks, Cotillard had visited the full range of Piaf’s life, from age 17 to 47, and had found the pleasure in all those periods.

Though Piaf’s singing voice was her signature, it is Cotillard’s expressive eyes that sell her performance, the vital link in a full-body transformation that gains resilience even as her character grows brittle in the face of cancer, addiction and tragedy. To watch Cotillard in action is to suspect that no human has ever lived as much — or suffered as deeply — as the wounded sparrow she plays onscreen.

To an outsider, re-creating such intense pain may seem like masochism, but “it’s what I like to do,” Cotillard insists. “When I play tragedy, I have fun. It’s a very vast place to express yourself.”

Vocation: actress

Recent breakthrough: After a series of supporting turns, Cotillard carries “La Vie en rose” on her shoulders.

Role models: “There are many people that I admire: Meryl Streep, Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Brad Pitt, Michael Keaton.”

Career mantra: “I think art has no frontier…Also, how to translate this into English in order not to spoil the idea? I think that you attract what you need.”

What’s next: Nothing official yet, but thanks to the international success of “La Vie en rose,” “I have very interesting offers now,” she says.