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PARIS — Never mind strained political relations between France and America. In the movie world, there’s a celluloid romance blooming between American directors and French actors, and vice versa.

Examples run from Elodie Bouchez in Paul Black’s “America Brown” to Vincent Cassel in “Ocean’s Twelve,” while Jodie Foster snagged a role in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new movie, “A Very Long Engagement,” and Ivan Attal plans to have Johnny Depp play a small part in his “My Wife Is an Actress” sequel. Could Audrey Tautou’s breakthrough, “Amélie,” or Ludivine Sagnier’s sexy turn in “Swimming Pool” have triggered the phenomenon?

This story first appeared in the March 11, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

According to Marion Cotillard, who plays the wife of Billy Crudup’s character in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” the answer lies in a heightened interest in contemporary French film.

“Lately, France has come up with new kinds of movies, which have attracted American directors’ eyes,” the 27-year-old actress explains, mentioning the Eric Valette horror movie “Maléfique” as an example. After all, producer Joel Silver hired Mathieu Kassovitz — whose French-language films, “La Haine” and “The Crimson Rivers,” made a big splash in the U.S. — to direct “Gothika.”

Sagnier, who starred as Tinkerbell in P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan,” says it’s all about acting prowess. “French actresses are less worried about their physical appearance,” she says. “They’re daring and ready to go very far.”

Frank Coraci, who is currently wrapping “Around the World in 80 Days” with Cécile de France (of “L’Auberge Espagnole”), as well as Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, confirms that observation with an anecdote. “One morning, we finished shooting at 8 a.m. We drank some vodka and we had a contest: Who could make the goofiest and most unattractive face in front of my digital camera,” he recalls with a laugh. “Cécile won. She is not afraid of showing her true self; she is not inhibited.

“There are not as many actresses in Paris as there are in L.A.,” Coraci adds, “but they’re all great, really.”

John Boorman, who cast Juliette Binoche opposite Samuel L. Jackson in “The Country of My Skull,” which opens in the U.S. later this year, agrees. “I consider Binoche not only one of the best actresses in the world, but also the most emotionally truthful,” he says.

And David O’Russell speaks in the same glowing tones about Isabelle Huppert’s performance in his forthcoming comedy, “I Heart Huckabee’s,” which also stars Jude Law and Naomi Watts. “Isabelle has a seriousness, a sincerity, a toughness and a sexuality that is not American in any way,” he says.

The Hollywood allure, not to mention the enormous budgets, is not lost on young French starlets. “When I walked in on the set and saw a chair with my name on it, I thought I was going to faint,” says Cotillard, 27, who drew attention in Luc Besson’s “Taxi.”

“It was quite magical,” muses De France about filming “Around the World in 80 Days.” “Three-hundred extras in costumes on the set, each with all the authentic details. It was like going back to being a kid!”

The male French actors are more blasé, saying they simply go where good roles take them. Olivier Martinez, who stars in “Taking Lives,” which opens next Friday, just appreciates having a job. “I love to work, it does not matter where. And anyway, I get hired mostly because I look Latino and Mediterranean, not because I’m French!”

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