WHEN SHE WAS 13, HER FIRST role transformed her from an anonymous, working-class tomboy into, as one Paris magazine put it, "French cinema's little sweetheart." At 16, she won a César, France's most prestigious film award. Today her fellow countrymen compare her with Bardot and Deneuve. But superstar status in Europe isn't enough for Sophie Marceau, 28, the sultry, defiant heroine of Mel Gibson's new movie, Braveheart. Despite making 15 films in as many years, she is still dissatisfied with her career. "I'm waiting to be used!" she says. "Americans don't know me at all."

If not, they soon will, thanks to her smoldering onscreen relationship with Gibson. In the sweeping epic Braveheart, Marceau plays Isabelle, a 13th-century Princess of Wales, a passionate woman trapped in a cold marriage—until she encounters Gibson as the ferocious Scottish rebel William Wallace. "Mel," she has said with a sly giggle, "is a great seducer."

In fact the two are nothing more than professional colleagues. But she and Gibson—who also directed the film—both say that any cinematic chemistry between them is rooted in mutual admiration. "He has a good sense of psychology," Marceau observes. "He is profoundly kind, very well brought up. With him you feel observed and loved." During her three months of filming in Dublin last summer, she also came to appreciate the fledgling director's lack of pretense. "He's a beginner, if I may say so; this is only his second film," Marceau says. "And there's action, battle scenes—he had to open a large palette. Most of the directors I've worked with in France are old veterans. They don't have the freshness I felt in Mel." For his part, Gibson believed Marceau was perfect for the role. "She's a regal beauty," he has said, "an actress who can wear period dresses without looking disguised."

Still, Marceau, now eight months pregnant, is more comfortable wearing a loose dress and leggings as she relaxes in her four-bedroom fiat outside Paris with her pampered dogs Bumppo and Arthur. She lives there, and in Warsaw, with Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski, 52, her companion of 10 years. Marceau says that the imminent birth of their first child is a sign of the couple's "good family life."

Some of her French fans, though, have found the relationship troubling. Zulawski, apart from being 24 years older than Marceau, is the director who led her away from teen romance movies into the world of art-house erotica: She did her first nude scene in his 1984 film L'Amour Braque, when she was 17. But Marceau laughs at the notion that Zulawski is a Svengali—although Isabelle Adjani once said that working with him was a "masochistic" experience because of his overbearing style. "People told me he was crazy, that he'd ask me to do monstrous things," Marceau says. "But Andrzej gets things out of actors they never knew were there. Sometimes it hurts," she admits, "but you are changed by it."

Marceau is accustomed to hard work. Raised in a blue-collar suburb of Paris, she is the only daughter of café owners Simone and Benoît Maupu. (Her brother Sylvain, 30, is a computer layout technician at Paris Match.) At 13, dreading another job like the one she had unloading produce trucks, Marceau answered a modeling agency ad in a TV listings magazine. Within six months she was plucked from thousands of hopefuls to play a perky teen imp in 1980's wildly successful La Bourn ("The Party"), a frothy comedy about young love. She won a César for its sequel, La Boum II, three years later.

To the public, Marceau's career seemed the quintessential overnight success story. But privately the young actress—who changed her name to Marceau, after a Paris avenue, on the advice of her first director—was struggling. Out of sheer naïveté, Marceau says, she worked without an agent those initial years; she had nobody to guide her. "I didn't know the rules—I was trying to continue to live normally when the situation wasn't normal at all," she says now. "I was the No. 1 up-and-coming French film star, and I lived in our little public housing apartment. It was crazy."

As she became less naive about the movie business, she grew frustrated with her mischievous schoolgirl image. So when Zulawski approached Marceau, then 16, with the role of a self-destructive prostitute in L'Amour Braque, she eagerly accepted the part. Since then she has alternated between cutting-edge films and more commercial movies. Hollywood never called, though, until Mel Gibson began casting Braveheart.

Marceau met with Gibson, who knew of her from film clips sent by a casting agent, in a London hotel. "He really put me at ease," she says. "Gary Oldman was next door rehearsing Immortal Beloved, and Mel called him in. Gary read the part of my serving woman, who does all the talking in that scene—I had only one line! But I must have listened well, because Mel offered me the part." Gibson, in fact, had heard all he needed. "Sophie is an instinctively good actress," he has said.

At the moment, though, Marceau is focused on her baby: "When I feel it move inside me, nothing else counts." She even confesses to sewing and making jam in her spare time. "I'm a liberated, independent woman, but I like the idea that I'm made to have children."

Still, she hopes the buzz from Braveheart will persuade American studios to send her more scripts. "I need to play great popular heroines," she says. "Who is making films like that? The Americans, not the French." At this the Braveheart beauty heaves a great, Gallic sigh. "I haven't had the film, the role yet," she says.

JENNIFER KORNREICH
CATHY NOLAN in Paris

  • Contributors:
  • Cathy Nolan.