THOSE FAMILIAR WITH the career of Déborah François might be surprised by her latest project, Populaire. The 25-year-old Belgian actress made her screen debut at the age of 18 when she played Sonia, a destitute teen mother in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's L'Enfant, which won the Palme d'Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.
Most of her roles since have been in serious dramas. François has made a name for herself conveying the darker side of human emotion: desperation, depression, fear and rage.
So her most recent turn as Rose Pamphyle, a provincial shop girl turned secretary turned world champion typist comes as a bit of a shock, albeit a welcome one. Set in the late 1950s, the light comedy from French director Régis Roinsard is all bright colours and unashamedly camp, and François is finally able to make good use of her youthful ebullience.
If the new direction is a relief for audiences, it is even more of a relief for François herself. When we meet, in the backroom of a French restaurant in Wan Chai, she says she is exhausted from travel and a day spent in interviews and photo shoots.
If that's true, she doesn't show it - gamely posing for photographs, and talking with so much energy she can barely sit in her chair. As we chat, François gestures wildly and speaks in a series of comedic voices; prepared questions go unasked as she talks excitedly about her kitten in Paris, American television, and even the novelty underwear she saw on sale at Temple Street night market.
"I'm quite a funny person in real life, and I just wanted to show that in a film. It was really fun to play that. It was really something completely new," she says.
Populaire is a romantic comedy, but the making of the film was a love story of a different kind - one between the actress and the woman she plays.
Although François dismisses method acting as "bulls***", she prides herself on completely embodying her subjects. Still, in the case of Rose Pamphyle, her attraction to the character was stronger than she'd ever felt.
"I always love the characters I play, but rarely do I have a crush on them. I really had one for Rose," she says.
It was a case of love at first read. "From the day I read the script to the day I started the shoot, I couldn't stop thinking about Rose Pamphyle. Every day, my first thought when I woke up and my last thought before going to bed was 'I want to be Rose Pamphyle'," she says and throws her arms in the air.
François' love for Rose is hardly surprising; they have a lot in common. Like Rose, the actress came from a small town and a modest background - François' father was a policeman and her mother a social worker. And just like Rose, François set off on her own for the big city at a young age and through a combination of sheer hard work, talent and no small amount of luck, was able to find success beyond her wildest expectations.
Populaire comes just in time to capitalise on the current fixation with Mad Men and mid-20th century culture, clothes and aesthetics. If the American small-screen period drama takes viewers behind the scenes of advertising, the French feature film makes them feel like they're in the advert itself with its catchy music, bright clothes and big Colgate smiles.
In this, Roinsard is literally in his element. It is the director's first feature, having come from a career in commercials, and those sensibilities pervade his cinematic work.
Because of the film's aesthetic, François worries that viewers will miss the point. She knows that it's a comedy, but says that it is not shallow. "The serious topics are under the surface; you have to scratch to find them."
For François, Populaire is the story of a woman fighting against an overtly sexist society to have her voice heard, to be appreciated for her abilities and to escape the confines of her gender.
Still, although marketed as a woman's triumph over old-fashioned prejudices, Populaire could go much further. Rose's life is still dictated by the men around her, and finding love is still, for the young French woman, the highest calling of all. This reluctance to deal more forcefully with Rose's independence and personal fortitude frustrated François.
She says she wished her character had more power - and, in fact, "I asked for that". When the script did not deliver, she made a point of playing her most emotional scenes with a hard-edged fierceness. This was particularly the case with the climactic scene at her boss' birthday party. "I played the birthday scene really aggressively. Originally, I was supposed to be softer," she says with a sigh. "The filmmakers did a little bit to strengthen her character, but not enough."
Nonetheless, François is proud of the message she sees at the core of the film: "If you are a woman, especially if you're young and blonde, it doesn't mean you can't think, and it doesn't mean you can't say what you're thinking. It's important to have opinions, and if you have opinions you shouldn't be afraid to say them even in front of men or authority figures."
If the theme of gender equality is, at times, a bit obscured, then the film's other theme is hard to miss: vive la France! It is about Rose, but it is also a kind of better-late-than-never salve for France's lingering post-war inferiority complex.
It is literally a story of France versus the world - and playing the part of the heroine who carries the nation's hopes and aspirations is François, a Belgian. She finds all this amusing. "It's like a Canadian being asked to portray an American in a patriotic film."
Despite the incongruous casting, she is clearly delighted when I tell her that the predominantly French audience at the screening I attended cheered when an American character married to a French woman said: "France for love, America for business."
Over the course of our conversation, François describes filming Populaire as both a pleasure and a relief.
But those who think that it signals a lasting career shift are wrong. Already she is back to her old ways, working on a made-for-TV movie about violence against women.
She admits that the serious roles can take their toll. "When you have to cry or be sad or upset, sometimes you have bad days. Sometimes you go home and it's difficult because you have to go so deep and take all that dark stuff inside and bring it outside."
But she says her time playing Rose Pamphyle gave her the strength to go on because "Rose is all about light and she brought me a lot of positive energy".
Populaire opens on May 30