Before “grindhouse” went from schlock to postmodern parody courtesy of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, a movie called “Haute Tension” quietly appeared in Sundance’s Midnight sidebar in 2004. Besides proving that the French (director Alexandre Aja) can execute the slasher film with every bit the relish and polish of their American counterparts, “Haute Tension” introduced American audiences to Cecile De France, a gamine beauty whose dreamy eyes, childlike voice and Jean Seberg hair belied a resourcefulness every bit as brutal as Sigourney Weaver’s in “Alien.”
Since then the actress has seemingly worked nonstop, having completed at least a dozen films and proving, as she did as the waitress with big dreams in “Orchestra Seats,” that the camera is obsessed with her particular brand of whimsical charm, no matter who else is onscreen.
And if the 33-year-old longs for some quiet time to boost her creative juices, she hasn’t lost her love of the craft. “The day I’ll start thinking of acting as work and not play, it will be like dying,” De France says. “Acting is what keeps my heart beating.”
At 17, De France left her native Belgium for Paris, where she worked as an au pair while studying at the renowned National Superior School of Arts and Techniques of Theater. She spent the early years of her career onstage before being discovered by agent Dominique Besnehard and eventually stepping into her first significant film role with “L’Art (Delicat) de la Seduction,” and then shining among the ensemble players of “L’Auberge espagnole” (2002), nabbing the Cesar for most promising newcomer in the process. Last year she won another Cesar, for “Les Poupees de russes,” a sequel of sorts to “L’Auberge.”
The fact that she has become one of France’s most prolific actresses was in evidence at the recent City of Lights, City of Angels French festival in Los Angeles, where De France appeared in no less than three films: “Mauvaise foi,” “Mon colonel” and “Quand j’etais chanteur.”
But the demands on her time have come at a price.
“No one forced me to do all this,” she admits. “But it came to a point where I didn’t even have enough time to dream.”
Her passion for performing lies in her ability to create original characters, which she explains are often inspired by a mosaic of real-life people and events. “I can sit for hours on a bench and observe passers-by.”
Ordinary people have never been as mesmerizing.
Claim to fame: At home, “L’Auberge espagnole”; abroad, “High Tension.”
Career mantra: “Acting has to be playful and imaginative.”
Role model: “I’ve never been the fan-type of girl. My models are real-life people, not personalities.”
What’s next: Alain Berliner’s “J’aurai voulu etre un danseur” and Claude Miller’s “Le Secret”