CANNES, France — The magic and glamour of Cannes can be hard to spot on a day when rain is lashing the palm trees, roiling the gray Mediterranean and pooling in puddles along the Croisette.
But the world's leading film festival can transform careers – something no one knows that better than actors Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim, stars of director Asghar Farhadi's festival entry "The Past."
Bejo shimmered on-screen in Cannes two years ago in "The Artist," her director husband Michel Hazanavicius' vivacious silent homage to Hollywood's Golden Age. It went on to win five Academy Awards, including best picture.
Rahim was the breakout star of the 2009 festival in Jacques Audiard's poetic and brutal prison drama "A Prophet," as a youth growing to manhood behind bars.
Cannes exposure helped boost both performers onto the international stage. While once most European actors could choose between stay at home and playing Hollywood villains, their paths suggest a more globalized movie world.
"It was quite a miracle for me," Bejo said Saturday, as rain drummed remorselessly on a Cannes rooftop lounge. "Two years ago my life changed a little bit in Cannes.
"I don't think Asghar Farhadi would have cast me in this movie if I hadn't done `The Artist.'"
It's hard to think of two movie styles further apart than the flamboyant artifice of "The Artist" and the anatomically detailed domestic drama of "The Past"
Bejo plays Marie, a harried Frenchwoman with two children, a new boyfriend with a young son, and an Iranian ex who has returned after four years to finalize their divorce. Rahim is her boyfriend Samir, a man with complex family ties of his own.
All the characters are trying to move on – but the past keeps dragging them back.
Bejo said she did a screen test for Farhadi, then didn't hear from him for a month, so initially thought she hadn't got the part.
"He said to me, I was looking into your face if I could see the doubt," she said. "I guess because he saw me in movies where I was quite positive, quite sunny, quite glamorous. He needed to see if I could show another part of myself – and I guess he found it."
For Bejo, as for Rahim, working with the Iran director was a dream come true. "The Past" is the first film Farhadi has shot outside his homeland, and the actors say they loved his working methods – two months of rehearsal to delve into character, break down barriers and forge bonds, followed by a four-month shoot.
With its Iranian director and largely French cast, it's one of several border-hopping movies at Cannes this year. French director Arnaud Desplechin's made-in-America "Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian" stars France's Mathieu Amalric and Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro. Another French filmmaker, Guillaume Canet, has a multinational cast including Clive Owen, Billy Crudup and Marion Cotillard in his New York crime drama "Blood Ties."
It's a trend Bejo is happy to embrace.
"In America you have Christoph Waltz, you have Marion Cotillard," she said. "In France we have Italian and Spanish actors. ... I think it's great. We are used to strangers and foreign accents, and it's great that we can see that in our movies now."
Both she and Rahim have been busy since their Cannes breakthroughs. Bejo recently made French heist movie "The Last Diamond" and soon starts filming Hazanavicius' next project, a war movie set in Chechnya.
Rahim's projects include the English-language Roman-era adventure "The Eagle" and another movie appearing at Cannes this year, the nuclear power plant romance "Grand Central."
Coming up, he plays a cop in the French movie "The Informant," and is currently shooting a globe-spanning 1920s-set drama with Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, another pillar of culture-crossing cinema.
Despite the busy international career – and post-"Prophet" expressions of interest from the United States – Rahim says Hollywood remains a hard nut to crack for non-Anglophone actors.
"It's not what you expect at first," Rahim said. "You'd like to be with Michael Mann or (directors) like this, but you don't have those parts that easily. Because first you have to speak English, you have to erase your accent."
For now, he's just happy to be back in Cannes, an experience that is easier the second time around.
"The difference is that now I'm not afraid when I come here," he said. "I'm (saying) `OK I'm going to take every good vibe and keep it.'"
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
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