Film: Angel eyes, scrubbed face, itchy armpit

Elodie Bouchez: more than a French sex kitten.
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The Independent Culture
SHE LOOKS like a waif who has strayed too far from home, then turns street savvy and old-lady wise. Elodie Bouchez, best known in Britain for her giggly, loose-limbed performance in Yolande Zauberman's Clubbed to Death, may be only 25, but her strength and determination are evident.

In three years she has soared from being "most promising newcomer" in the Cesars, the French Oscars, to a shared Best Actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where her wisp of a diaphanous red dress outshone the competition who included glad-ragged Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder. Not bad going for a someone who lives modestly in a tiny flat in Pigalle.

She shared her Cannes victory with her co-star, newcomer Natacha Regnier, for the first film by Erick Zonca, The Dream Life of Angels which depicts the changing bonds of friendship between two working-class women in the north of France.

It's a long way from what some see as a traditional French preoccupation with affairs of the heart, usually glossily shot on the banks of the Seine. But Bouchez has never gone for "gloss". She gave up university to appear in the late and legendary Serge Gainsbourg's last film. Partly because of the title and subject matter, she gained a certain unjustified notoriety: Stan the Flasher dealt with an English teacher who exposed himself to young girls.

"Some people thought it was going to be pornographic, but it wasn't in the least bit salacious," says Bouchez. "And Gainsbourg was very sweet, calm and quite normal. I was just 16 and I couldn't believe I was working with this monstre sacre".

Since then she has garnered a reputation as a fearless practitioner, especially in the steamy, adolescent turmoil of Andre Techine's coming- of-age tale Wild Reeds. It was in this film that she caught Erick Zonca's eye and the two eventually met at a festival, at which Bouchez presented him with an award. "When he came up on stage he said: `Elodie doesn't know it yet, but I've written my first feature for her.' He met me afterwards and said he had the cover of an edition of Cahiers du Cinema on his computer, the one from Wild Reeds with me in a swimsuit. I thought: `strange' ... He never mentioned it again until the day he offered me the part."

Directors, she claims, rarely place enough confidence in their actors. She won Zonca over by investing humour in her character, Isa, which wasn't there on the printed page.

"She was too passive, and seemed to lack energy. I had already played that kind of role, and I didn't think I could bring anything new. Then he rewrote it and sent me other drafts and they got better. I had seen his short movies which were really good, and so I decided to trust him. Isa wasn't conscious at all of her femininity; if she wanted to scratch under her arms, she would have a good scratch.

"By giving her that kind of freedom I began to understand her. The girl I play never looks at herself in the film. So for weeks, throughout the shoot, I didn't look at myself a single time."

Bouchez, whose gamine appearance has been compared to the young Leslie Caron's, still seems unconcerned about her looks. Her luminous eyes are devoid of make-up, her face scrubbed and tanned from a holiday in LA. When asked to cite an acting influence she avoids such Gallic icons as Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve or Juliet Binoche, preferring to name Gena Rowlands and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

She intends to spend the rest of the year travelling round the festivals circuit. She says she needs time to come to terms with her Cannes accolade. "It's like a new beginning and you have to prove yourself to everybody all over again, and convince them that you can live up to the award. I need to feel scared and have a rush of adrenaline - and maybe a kick on the shins to shake me up."

`The Dream Life of Angels' is reviewed on page 11