FARRELL, Fassbender, Neeson, Rhys-Meyers. We punch well above our weight in putting the Irish male on the map in Hollywood, while the ladies don't fare so well; Saoirse Ronan remains about the only convincingly international female star of the moment.
In France, the reverse is true. Hollywood loves a Gallic dame. Cotillard, Binoche, Paradis, Delpy, Tautou, to name just a few of the current generation of women who have risen to international fame. The men? Well, there's Vincent Cassel.
And now, there's another to add to the stable. Lately, a French actor, long-considered a virtuoso of his craft by his countrymen, is starting to attract attention for his work. Not because he's actively seeking approval in LA, but because his choice of French language films have been big hits both at home and abroad.
It was for Heartbreakers, the rom-com in which he played a professional seducer, bringing bounding, impish energy to the role, that he became well known outside of France – it was the biggest French film of 2010 securing its place among a handful of crossover hits that includes The Artist and Amelie.
Just like Heartbreakers, Romain Duris's latest film, Populaire, falls into the rom-com genre, but not as you know it. Capitalising on the zeitgeist, it's described on the poster as a Mad Men meets The Artist. Set in the Fifties, the action centres around Rose Pamphyle, a young girl from a country town, swept up in a wave of social change in Fifties France. Refusing to resign herself to a life spent behind the counter of her father's shop, Rose, played by Deborah Francois, leaves home to fulfil her dream of becoming a glamorous urbane office girl. She is a terrible secretary, disorganised, maladroit, but in her interview with her boss Echard, she reveals a special talent, with just one finger, she's a demon on a typewriter. Spotting her talent, Echard hires her in order to train her as a speed typing champion.
It's the kind of entertainment froth that the French, and in this case, first-time director Regis Roinsard, pull off with perfect panache. Visually beautiful in elegant Fifties style, the film is adorable without being sickly sweet – an almost perfect piece of bijou light entertainment.
Romain plays Echard, a buttoned-up office man, outwardly controlled but teeming with frustrated ambition that he channels through his new protege. "I liked that you can't understand him at the first look," he says, explaining the appeal of his character, in his thick Parisian accent. "I like that, at the beginning to play someone who seems to be closed to a lot of things, emotions, love, and during the movie try to open them.
"I also like the position of being the coach, behind someone, trying to make her a champion, to be on the side, but with ambition.
"Personally, I think I used to be competitive in my childhood, in sports or games. I hate to lose. I think ... he has that inside him. And it's easy to make it very strong, the despair to lose could be very big, could take every place inside you. I understand that."
That he's very different from the repressed Echard is immediately obvious. His hair in the film is neatly cropped and styled, in life it's artfully deshabille. Today, he is nattily dressed in jeans and shirt, with lots of heavy gothic silver jewellery. There's something a little untamed about Duris – compactly constructed, he seems brimming with uncontainable energy, like a sprite.
"I don't like to keep things, like him, stuck inside me. I let things go, quickly. I don't let the problems overwhelm," he says. "But there were some aspects of the characterisation of Echard that required only a short imaginative leap."
"The love affair," he says. "It's easy to build that because of life, I didn't have a need to search to understand his problems and his issues."
Duris was famously discovered while hanging out around the art college where he was studying in the mid-Nineties. Perfectly insouciant, even then, rumour has it that he initially turned down the director Cedric Klapisch who wanted him for a role, because he already had a summer job delivering pizzas. He thinks, however, that he has always been an actor – even when he was a pizza delivery boy.
"I think I was an actor before – before the camera," he says. "Maybe I can say for my first movie, it was easy for me to say. It was natural."
The idea for Populaire came to writer/director Roinsard when he stumbled across a documentary about speed typing competitions in the Fifties. "I'm not nostalgic," Roinsard explains. "But I like to understand our world through another period. It was very funny, when I saw a speed typing contest, I thought, 'why did they do that?' I understood that it was the beginning of the world of speed; in cars, in planes. Everybody wanted to be the fastest.
"And our world is exactly the same thing. The computer, our home time, each day in life. It's bizarre. I don't hate the internet, but it's very difficult to understand Twitter, for example, because it's real time. And everybody wants to be in real time. What really is real time? So with that kind of movie, that is funny and colourful, it's interesting to ask, what is our world right now. And in the Fifties it was the beginning of a lot of stuff – female emancipation, consumer society and it's a very interesting decade."
The Fifties appealed to Roinsard visually as well because of the style, the influence of Americana on European tastes. "In France just after the Second World War, we asked ourselves, what is our culture. And we are fascinated by the American culture. And one of my co-writers is American. It was very natural to write that movie like that with him. The cinema for me, it's fantasy. When you see the American movies right now, they search to re-invent something. And it seems very difficult for us.
"In France right now, it's very difficult to know who we are. If we mix all of the cultures, maybe we can find something original. Or maybe we can understand how we are. It's a research."
Roinsard is engaged to a woman who is half-American, half-French, so is fascinated by the interplay between cultures. "It was very natural to express myself like that," he says.
Unlike his director, however, Duris is not the marrying kind. "No! I'm French!" he exclaims, when asked about it, as if that is explanation enough. In fact, he is in a long-term relationship with the doe-eyed Parisian actress Olivia Bonamy, and the two have a young son together.
When he's not acting, he likes to paint – a creative endeavour which has been his first love since he was a teenager. "It's the very opposite," (to acting) he says, "so I need them both. I need to do both. I love to be alone at my place to paint. I'm directing. And I like to be surrounded by crazy people like him (Roinsard), who give me instructions. I need both. I need that. We've been shooting for three months. I like to be alone and say, 'OK! I put the red! F*** off!' I have the power."
This attitude, an innate resistance to being compliant, seems to pervade everything about him. Of his prospects outside France, he is equally nonchalant. "If I go to Hollywood, I don't want to go as the poor little Frenchman," he has said in the past.
Luckily, he may be spared the indignity of heading to Hollywood, cap in hand, as it seems that Hollywood may well come to him instead.
'Populaire' is in cinemas from next Friday.
Sunday Indo Living