WHILE attending France's most celebrated movie event, the Cannes Film Festival, it seemed a good idea to pay a call on France's most celebrated movie actress.
Many would give that title to Jeanne Moreau, who hosted the filmfest's final awards ceremony, or to Catherine Deneuve, who starred in "My Favorite Season," the opening-night attraction.
But for many in the new generation of French moviegoers, young Emmanuelle Beart has become the most glowing representative of the mingled skill, intelligence, and beauty that such predecessors as Ms. Moreau and Ms. Deneuve have made synonymous with stardom in French cinema.
Although she has built her reputation in 10 movies and a number of stage productions, Ms. Beart is known to international audiences for her work in two important films: "Manon of the Spring," a romantic drama in which she played the title character; and "La Belle Noiseuse," a four-hour epic about the creation of a painting.
Now she is bidding for a new burst of popularity with "Un Coeur en Hiver," or "A Heart in Winter," in which she plays a gifted musician torn between two attractive men. Directed by Claude Sautet, with more energy and imagination than his films often contain, it is a sensitive look at an uncommonly strong woman - she is a talented artist, while the men in her life are artisans with more modest abilities - and a strong friendship that complicates the relationship between the men.
I visited Beart on the terrace of a well-appointed hotel suite not far from the Palais du Festival, where she had come to help launch "Un Coeur en Hiver" on its international track. There wasn't a musical instrument in sight, and I couldn't help asking the actress - whose onscreen musicmaking is utterly convincing - whether she was a trained violinist before taking her role.
On the contrary, she told me, "I never touched an instrument before in my life, so I had to work like crazy to do this part." The work consisted of practice, practice, practice, three hours every day for a solid year. "Very often I felt like just throwing away my violin because it was so hard," Beart recalled with a rueful smile.
This determination to master an aspect of her role that many performers might have tried to fake - or at least to slide through with a minimum of effort - is typical of Beart's approach to acting.
"There are different schools of acting," she says, "the American school and the French school. Those who are French just come on the set, and they're ready; but the Americans want to work [on their roles] beforehand.... I don't know if it's a compliment or not, but very often people tell me that I'm like an American, because I really want to work before the movie."
Beart agrees that it's unusual for a movie to focus on a strong, capable woman while relegating the chief male characters to supporting roles. But she believes this is an accurate reflection of relationships between men and women today.
"Women are trying to catch up with men," she says in her lightly accented English, "and men are trying to escape. Women have taken such power, such authority, that I think men are more afraid of women than they were before. It's something I can see around me all the time.... There's something that isn't going very well between men and women, and the balance needs to be corrected. This movie is a little bit like that."
Beart's career has been marked by appearances in radically different films by radically different directors. "La Belle Noiseuse" is the work of Jacques Rivette, one of the world's most experimental filmmakers, while "Un Coeur en Hiver" represents Mr. Sautet's characteristically conservative style. Is there a kind of culture shock when switching between projects of such different natures?
"Working in different films makes me feel I'm very different, too," the actress replies. "It's like you have a house, and every time you open a window you see a different landscape. We didn't have any script in Jacques Rivette's film. We were doing the movie day by day. Rivette is someone who loves a feeling of danger; we didn't know what we were going to do each day, and that's the way he likes it."
In a striking contrast, Beart continues, Sautet is "completely different, because he knows exactly what he wants a whole year earlier. We had dinner every week for a year, talking about the scenes. He knew exactly how he was going to do it, exactly how he was going to shoot it, and he knew every single word of the script, and he played the scenes for me, one year before."
Which filmmaker's approach is more exciting?
"What I like above everything is the difference," Beart responds thoughtfully. "For three years I've been working with some very crazy people, but they're all wonderful, and I am very lucky. It gives me the feeling that every day I am doing something different in my life - and I don't know what it's going to be tomorrow."