Beauty and the Bistro

It's just after noon, and I'm waiting outside a cafe for a French blonde. I've been told she has a scar on her cheek. Needless to say, I'm feeling rather Graham Greene-ish.

A few minutes later, Michèle Laroque shows up, wearing an elegant pantsuit and sneakers. As we shake hands, I look at her face. I'd been warned that the actress, in town to promote her film The Closet [see review], had recently had an accident onstage and had a scar about which she was sensitive, and that I mustn't ask her about this unless she brought it up. I'd been expecting something pretty Gothic and shocking, something that would make me pull some kind of faux pas: "Would you like some more wine with your scar?"

But her impeccably made-up features look flawless. As we sit down to lunch at Christopher's Fermier Brasserie in Biltmore Fashion Park, and I get a longer look at her, I see what she's talking about: a very faint bruise under her right eye. A slight shiner, unnoticeable if one wasn't looking for it. That's a French actress's idea of a "scar."

By her own admission, Laroque is prone to accidents. The actress, probably best known in this country for her performance as the mother in the Golden Globe-winning Ma Vie en Rose, might not even have taken up acting had it not been for an accident. She had been studying economics and English at university, but "[a]t the end of the first year, I had a very bad accident, car accident," says Laroque, in her accented but excellent English. "At the hospital, I said I was about to die without knowing whether I was a bad or a good actress. And they said, 'Oh la la, she bumped her head very violently.' So after that, I went back to the university, boring myself a lot, and I began attending drama classes, and it was really a shock, I found it was a passion for me." She studied acting with Julien Bertheau, a veteran of the Comedie Francaise and of various Buñuel films.

We order -- a mixed grilled salad for her and scallops for me -- and then Laroque goes back to the beginning of the story. This, too, turns out to be on the Graham Greene side. "My mother, she's Romanian, she escaped from her country to marry my father. She was a dancer, a folk dancer. She was a member of a group, and she made tours, and one day she arrived in Nice, and my father was there. So they fell in love, and a year after she escaped in London, and he came and he married her."

A year after that, back in Nice, Laroque made her appearance. Her father worked for medical laboratories; her mother became a teacher of English phonics. "I had a childhood with a lot of lessons, and sports," she recalls. But Nice must have been a lovely place to grow up, mustn't it? "Yes, but a boring place, too," says Laroque. "A lot of old people. . . . It's not a young city. So I made a lot of sports, because there was nothing else to do."

We get our lunches -- three plump, succulent, lightly grilled scallops over asparagus for me, and for the svelte Laroque, a mountain of salad over grilled chicken. She munches away, telling me about a less boring side to her childhood -- her visits to Romania, the homeland to which her defector mother could not return while it was still under Nicolae Ceausescu's tyrannical regime.

"All of mother's family was there," she says. "She was unable to go back, because she was condemned. So she never went back. First time was two years ago." Laroque, however, made the trip as a child, to visit her dying grandfather, and again a year later for his funeral. She was unimpressed by the country, as it was then. "It was horrible in Romania as a kid," she says emphatically. The word "horrible" comes out "or-REEB-bull" in Laroque's accent.

She went back to Romania as a teenager, and got an even stronger taste of the terror that Ceausescu inspired. "I went to see my aunt; I like her very much," she recalls. "One day we were in a town, and in the streets they had pictures of the burglars everywhere, what they'd done, you can see how long they are going to stay in jail and so on. And I was in the street with my aunt, who's a brave woman; she's not a coward. And I see a picture of Ceausescu, and said, 'Oh, so he's a burglar too!' You can't know what happened. She took me, run, run, run, we got in the car, and left the town!"

My scallops are buttery and sublime. I ask Laroque how she likes her salad, and she says it's very good. Her food preferences don't run to the traditional heavy fare with which her home country is associated. "I like very simple food," she says, "because when I was a kid, my father was on a diet because he had a problem with I don't know the name of that . . . not stomach, but . . ." With gestures, she makes it clear to me what she's talking about: the esophagus. "So I used to eat very light at home, and I kept that taste. Light sauces." All the same, when the waiter asks if we've saved room for dessert, Laroque orders cheesecake. I follow suit.

As we wait, she tells me about her fondness for American drama -- she wrote French adaptations of plays by Lanford Wilson and Robert Harling, and performed in Paris in a Neil Simon play: "I Want to Be on Pictures, I think, right?" I Ought to Be in Pictures, right. She tells me about her earlier film career, and about working with such French-film heavyweights as Gérard Depardieu, Thierry Lhermitte and Daniel Auteuil in The Closet. She admits to her preference for film acting over the theater: "On stage you always have to project a little bit, and on the set you are read by the camera, and you just have to think, you know, and to be."

Then, as the exquisite little cylinders of cheesecake ringed with berries are placed before us, Laroque at last sheepishly tells me the story of the accident that "scarred" her. She had just completed a performance, in Paris, of a two-character play called They Used to Love Each Other. "It was my birthday," says Laroque. "And all the audience had sung 'Happy Birthday Michèle,' you know, one thousand persons, and when I went out, at the end of the performance, there are three big letters in wood, very big, F-I-N, which means 'The End,' and I bumped myself in the dark, on the F, so it was a knockout. It was terrible, I went to the hospital, I had stitches."

So, I ask, while she was unconscious, did she have a vision that she should have pursued a career in economics?

"No," she says confidently. "I wouldn't have that, I promise you."

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead