Close-up: Jeanne Balibar

She doesn't just star in period dramas, she can break them down in Marxist terms too

When it comes to grande-dame performances, Jeanne Balibar's role in the French-language period drama Don't Touch the Axe is one that Sarah Bernhardt might have given her other leg for. Balibar plays an 1820s duchess in the throes of passion; watching her lofty poise, one might assume she had boned up on salon portraits of the time. No, she says it's all in the frocks: "Bodies are formed by the clothes you put them in."

While Balibar's only English-speaking role so far, in Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, required her mainly to loll around in her underwear, in France the 39-year-old is a revered arbiter of highbrow chic. She works with "difficult" auteurs such as Ral Ruiz and Jacques Rivette, and has a successful side-career as a chanteuse with a frosty delivery.

The cerebral persona is far from skin-deep: she studied history at Paris's prestigious Ecole Normale Suprieure, then did post-graduate stints at both Oxford and Cambridge. Her mother is a quantum physicist, her father the influential Marxist philosopher Etienne Balibar. The genes show when she discusses being photographed: "When you do a shoot for Elle, you're playing with codes which are the expression of the petite bourgeoisie. When it's for Dazed and Confused, it's something else. I have a somewhat Marxist view of those things."

For eight years, Balibar lived with the actor Mathieu Amalric, father of her two children. When they were together, they were both art-house hardliners; now he's worked with Spielberg (in Munich), and she's stopped turning down French blockbusters. Yet Balibar is still committed to art cinema, if worried about its decline and she has a theory about that, too: "It's all to do with the de-industrialisation of Europe..."

'Don't Touch the Axe' is on general release