WHEN making Angel and Tony, a French tale of a young woman coming in from the emotional cold, Clotilde Hesme was under strict instructions from her director: "Don't smile." Tough, says Hesme, given that she is a naturally cheery person, and she was so delighted to have won her first leading role.

Smiling came much easier when the film won her a Cesar award for best newcomer, and the same for her co-star, Gregory Gadebois.

Hesme plays the Angel of the title, an outsider who comes to a small fishing village in Normandy in the hope of making contact with the son she has not seen in years. The audience knows little about the character other than that she is clearly damaged, and not very likeable. Hesme warmed to her immediately.

"I liked the character because she was not pleasant, she was not trying to seduce, she was unsympathetic. It's a great thing for an actress to play a role like that. To be rough and tough, like a soldier, like a wounded animal."

The choice of Normandy as a location was a personal one on the part of Alix Delaporte, the film's writer-director.

"It's linked to my childhood: my mother and grandmother were born in Normandy, not far from Port-en-Bessin where the film is set. I'd spend all of my holidays there and always thought of fishermen as romantic characters."

It's a fisherman, Tony (Gadebois), with whom Angel becomes entangled – much to Tony's surprise. There is, to put it politely, a mismatch in looks between the two characters. That was all part of Delaporte's plan. She had worked with Hesme before on a short film, Comment en freine dans une Descente, and found herself drawn to her again when it came to casting the part of Angel, whose looks, taking their cue from her name, are decidedly angelic.

"I saw plain-looking girls, some who were more 'real' looking than others. Clotilde had a childlike air about her which made her special. I wanted to film her more than anything else and her beauty added another layer to the character, a more romantic side."

Having a female director made a difference, says Hesme, not least in that it led to the offer of her first leading role. "I had done some great movies I really liked, but I was always the sister or the wife of the main character." With her first lead now behind her, she hopes other offers will follow. "I'm waiting for other proposals from men," she laughs. "I think women write more female roles. Many scripts are for men. Even in theatre, the best roles were for men."

Winning a Cesar, the equivalent of a Bafta, should help too, even if the best-newcomer award doesn't quite match how long Hesme has been in the business. Now 32, the Parisienne has been an actor for 10 years, since graduating from the Conservatoire National Superieur d'Art Dramatique in Paris.

With her two sisters, Elodie and Annelise, also actors, it has become something of a family business. Clotilde, the youngest of the three, grew up watching her sisters act and decided it looked like a lot of fun. There's no rivalry between the three, she says. "We're really close."

Before Angel and Tony, Hesme made a name for herself outside France with the period drama Mysteries of Lisbon, released in the UK last December. Directed by Raoul Ruiz and adapted from the 19th century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, the tale of an orphan desperate to know where he came from was a sumptuous, sprawling affair, with the emphasis on sprawling – the running time was four and a half hours. It was so long that cinemas showing it had to bring back the custom of an interval. Despite the running time, it was a critical and audience hit.

During the four month shoot in Lisbon, Hesme was given another odd direction – make it theatrical. "They told us to almost act as if we were in the theatre." This made a change from working in French cinema, she says, where directors are always keen to keep the acting naturalistic.

That's certainly the case with Angel and Tony. "Few words and primal emotions," says Delaporte. "That is what I was looking for when I made this movie."

Delaporte began her career as a journalist, doing TV news and profiles. It was while working at Canal Plus that she was given the job of profiling France's victorious World Cup squad of 1998 and met Zinedine Zidane.

As it turned out, it was the French footballing legend who got her a foot in the door in films. She had written a short film, Le piege, and was looking for an actor to appear in it. Roschdy Zem, star of Point Blank and The Cold Light of Day, named his terms.

"He told me, I'll play on your team if you get me a signed shirt by Zidane." She did. Le piege led to Comment... with Hesme, and eventually to the actor and director reuniting for Angel and Tony.

The partnership works, says Delaporte, because "she's an actress who doesn't confuse talent with moods. She works hard. She's constantly researching and her suggestions are never banal. That's what I like about her - her willingness to take risks."

That, and her ability not to smile, even when she is grinning inside.

Angel and Tony, Glasgow Film Theatre, June 12-14; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, July 31-August 2