Vanessa Paradis talks to Helen Barlow about her new movie Cafe de Flore
Ever since Vanessa Paradis started her musical career at the age of 14 with her hit single Joe le taxi, her tiny frame and gap-toothed smile have cemented her image as a young elfin woman. But that's had no impact on the diverse parts she has played in more than a dozen French movies including 1999's The Girl on the Bridge and her 2010 hit Heartbreakers.
"I've actually always played my age," the 39-year-old asserts of her movie roles, which began in 1989 with her controversial portrayal as the 17-year-old seductress of a 37-year-old man in White Wedding.
Paradis impresses in her most mature role to date as the poor single mother of a Down syndrome boy in 1960s Paris in her new movie Cafe de Flore directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. In the Canadian film, Vallee has cast two singers in the leads in his two seemingly unrelated stories - Canadian folk-rock singer Kevin Parent making his movie debut as a DJ in contemporary Montreal.
Initially Vallee considered the long-time spokeswoman for Chanel and partner of Johnny Depp too beautiful for the role.
"We looked at other actresses but Vanessa's name kept coming up," Vallee recalls. "So I met with her and she had such a way of talking about the character and the film - and you know the French when they talk! Listening to her was poetry, and she is a mother and she wanted to show me how she was perfect for the part."
Vallee's use of two storylines proves a little confusing. "I was looking for something different story-wise because I didn't want to do any ordinary linear love story," he says. "I wanted to be wild, to flirt with a supernatural theme as I like films like The Sixth Sense and The Others. I'd just finished The Young Victoria, a classic love story, and I wanted a complete change."
What links the two stories thematically is the concept of soulmates. While Paradis' Jacqueline can't deal with the fact that her 7-year-old son Laurent (Marin Gerrier) has fallen in love with a Down syndrome girl, Parent's ex-wife can't live without him and imagines she is seeing Laurent on the back seat of her car, as if she had been Paradis in a past life.
"Jacqueline's husband has left and she has no money, but she is determined that Laurent will have a longer life than was expected in the 60s when few Down syndrome people lived past their 20s," Paradis says. "Jacqueline becomes very passionate and aggressive because she loves him so much."
Working with Down syndrome children took some adjusting, Vallee admits. "It was tough sometimes but most of the time it was amazing. They are pure love, just like in the film. They are not acting. I realised early on that I couldn't ask them to act so I had to adapt their characters to their personalities. It helped that Vanessa and Marin had such a connection."
"When I first met him he ran into the room and jumped into my arms," Paradis recalls. "Meeting a beautiful person like Marin is always something that is very valuable in your life."
Who: Vanessa Paradis
What: Cafe de Flore
When: Opens at cinemas Thursday