CANNES - It is one of the unwritten rituals of the Cannes Film Festival that there must be a starlet of the year. Some years she is just that - an unknown starlet, dashing up and down the beaches in a bikini, pursued by the sex-mad paparazzi and their lusting Leicas. Sometimes, however, she happens to be an intelligent young actress like Carole Laure, who doesn't find it so much fun to play the sexpot starlet game.
Laure, at 27, is without a doubt the most highly visible young actress at Cannes this year. The film she stars in, "Fantastica," was chosen as the festival's official opening night selection. Her face is on the cover of L'Express, the French newsweekly, and half a dozen other magazines ranging down to the breathless daily English- language Festival newspaper.
Her photo on a billboard towers above the Croisette, so that she gazes down on the minor starlets on the beaches below.
All of this is a little breathtaking for a small-town girl from Shawyngan in Quebec, and Laure is staying very close to her home base in the Carlton Hotel. "I leave the hotel only to go to the Palais de Festival," she was explaining the other day, "and even then I get into trouble. On opening night, I was knocked in the head hard by a television camera. It is lucky this isn't my first year at Cannes. I might be totally overwhelmed."
Laure doesn't look, however, particularly overwhelmable. She is smaller in person than she appears on the screen but she makes, as the French would say, a formidable appearance. She has deep, dark eyes framed by a mass of long black hair, and she looks at first like a deep and soulful mystery woman.
It's only after she begins to talk, the French-accented English tumbling out in a cascade, that you believe she really is a small-town girl a little overawed by it all.
She inspires adulation. Richard Corliss, the new film critic for Time, is smitten with her and once paid homage in a notorious Village Voice cover story titled, "Afternoon with an Obsession." Laure was, he decided, very nearly perfect . . . and now, over lunch in the private dining room of the Carlton Hotel, Laure borrows a page from my notebook and writes a note for me to hand to Corliss.
"He saw the film when he just got off the plane," she says.
"I am asking him to see it when he is not so tired. Even if he doesn't like it, I will still be his friend."
I consider my grilled sardines and sigh. The movie, "Fantastica," is an odd hybrid, a French-Canadian musical about a troupe of traveling players who arrive in a small town (Laure's own native Shawyngan) and get involved in a local struggle between a landowner and a large corporation. It's not every day you get a musical from Quebec about ecology, which is perhaps why "Fantastica" was chosen to open the festival.
The movie was directed by Gilles Carle, Quebec's foremost filmmaker (his "The True Nature of Bernadette" won an award at the Chicago Film Festival seven years ago). Carle also was Laure's lover for a time, although they've made several movies since they broke up. She met him when she was 20. "Like every other actress in Quebec, I auditioned for the role of Bernadette. But she was a big-city girl who went to the country, and Gilles said I looked like the opposite. Sure enough, in the first film we made together, 'Death of a Lumberjack,' the opening shot showed me as a small-town girl coming to the city."
In addition to her work with Carle, Laure has made several films in France, most notably last year's Academy-Award winner for Best Foreign Film, "Get Our Your Handkerchiefs." The decision to go to France was a calculated one. "I know I could play foreign women in Hollywood films but Quebec is a suburb of America in such a way that Hollywood does not think we are foreign," she says. "If I go to Paris, then I can perhaps come back to America?"
The strategy seems to be working, especially since she's working Cannes for all the publicity it's worth. After our lunch (mixed hors d'oeuvres and cold cuts, $110 apiece), she was scheduled to appear on a French television program. Then she was going to be interviewed for the big Billy Baxter-Rex Reed U.S. television special on Cannes. Then, interviews with Cinema, the French film magazine, and Variety, the American show business weekly. Then, off to meet the Carradine brothers - David, Robert and Keith - who are here starring in "The Long Riders."
Next month, she goes to Budapest to appear in her first Hollywood film, John Huston's "Escape to Victory." The film stars Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine in the story of Allied prisoners of war who attempt to escape from the Nazis through the ruse of a soccer game.
"For me, it is a small role," Laure says. "But for John Huston I would take any role. It will be the second time I see him. When I was 20, Gilles Carle and I went to Mexico, to Puerto Vallarta, and we were walking down the beach and saw this tall figure coming a great distance. It was John Huston. I was overwhelmed. I was too shy to speak. Now I will take a small role from him, even though sometimes I turn down a big American role, like 'The Other Side of Midnight.'"
"That was a sad experience," she says. "I admire Dusan very much but after he signed me to the movie, he asked me to do things no human being could do. I had to refuse. I could not do these things as a person, let alone an actress." You mean ... sex scenes?
"No, no, no. To them I have no objection if the script is right. I mean much worse things than that."
"I will tell you but you will not be able to print them."
She told me. And she was right.