Byline: Robert Haskell

NEW YORK — She may not mean to, but Sandrine Bonnaire manages to drum up all the familiar markers of a French movie star one morning in her suite at the Essex House hotel: There’s the Yohji Yamamoto uniform, the feverish smoking out the window overlooking the park and that imposing, spiky profile that brings Jeanne Moreau immediately to mind.
Although the 33-year-old Bonnaire has been one of France’s biggest leading ladies for nearly two decades now, she has yet to taste the kind of international celebrity enjoyed by a few of her compatriots. “East-West,” her highest-profile film to date, may change all that when it opens across the U.S. this week.
“As a French actress,” she says, “you wait for the one film that Americans go and see. Virginie Lodoyen, who I think is very good, wasn’t well known in France, but then she went and worked with Leonardo DiCaprio. And Juliette Binoche did ‘The English Patient.”‘
Bonnaire boasts an impressive resume in her own right, having worked with nearly all of France’s greatest directors: Agnes Varda, Patrice Leconte, Andre Techine, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette.
“The funny thing is that I didn’t want to be an actress,” she says. “I was 15 and my family was living in Paris when my sister found a newspaper ad asking for two actresses. She sent her photo in and the company called her up at home. So she went and I went with her just for fun — and they chose me.
“At the time, I didn’t care. I had no idea about movies, really. But it ended up a big success.”
The film was Maurice Pialat’s “A Nos Amours,” and Bonnaire’s performance earned her a Cesar for Best Newcomer.
“East-West,” directed by Regis Wargnier, is the story of the hardships endured by a French woman (played by Bonnaire) who moves to the Soviet Union with her Russian husband after World War II. Her salvation comes at the hands of a famous French actress from a traveling theater group, played by Catherine Deneuve.
Bonnaire’s biggest challenge was working with her co-star, Oleg Menchikov, a Russian actor who doesn’t speak French and had to learn his lines syllable by syllable. With Deneuve, it was business as usual.
“The surprising thing is that she’s a very, very normal person,” Bonnaire says. “For us, she’s a symbol, like French wine or fashion, but not for her. She thinks it’s silly, and that’s why I like her. She just doesn’t care.”
Like Deneuve, Bonnaire doesn’t require dark sunglasses and a bodyguard for a spin around Paris. She lives in the Bois de Vincennes with her six-year-old daughter, Jeanne. Bonnaire met Jeanne’s father, William Hurt, while filming “The Plague” in 1991, but they’re no longer a couple.
If “East-West” is a success here, it may be because its themes — freedom, love and survival — are the traditional domain of the American cinema.
“This is the first time I’ve done an epic movie,” says the actress. “But success for a film is less predictable now. Independent films have become so popular — it’s like a fashion. After so many years doing smaller movies, now I prefer to do large ones. The audience needs the epic stories. They need the spectacle.”