A model at the age of two, Virginie Ledoyen began acting in commercials soon after and landed her first movie bit at age nine in Les Exploits d'un jeune Don Juan/The Exploits of a Young Don Juan (1987). She later starred as Mima, the sweet child who sees the men who take her grandfather away to kill him in Philomene Esposito's attractive first feature, and played a teenager adopted by a bizarre Argentine expatriate (Marcello Mastroianni) in Le Voleur d'enfants/The Children Thief (both 1991).

      No less a personage than the esteemed director Marcel Carne recognized her talent early, casting her in the title role of his comeback feature Mouche. Ledoyen appeared on his arm at Cannes in 1992 as the octogenarian raised money for the project, put on hold after a few days of fall shooting due to bad weather and insurance problems surrounding Carne's age and failing health. Her first real notice came as a rebellious teen committed to an institute after a shoplifting spree in Olivier Assayas' L'Eau froide/Cold Water (1993), and she has credited Assayas as an inspiration, but it would remain for director Benoit Jacquot to make her star. They first teamed for the costume epic La Vie de Marianne (1994), a TV mini-series which drew one of the highest-ever ratings for the French channel Arte, followed by La Fille seule/A Single Girl (1995), a surprise hit in the USA, establishing her in the words of NEW YORK TIMES critic Stephen Holden as "a luminous natural screen presence."

      Jacquot told the almost stream-of-conscience tale of Valerie (the titular Single Girl) in real-time, following the hotel worker in and out of rooms on her first day of work as she ponders her new pregnancy and her relationship with a boyfriend whom she has instructed to wait in a cafe. Returning to the cafe, she breaks off the affair, choosing independence and life as a single mother over what she perceives as a less satisfying alternative. Subsequently, Jacquot's Marianne (1997), a 90-minute feature distillation from his 1994 mini-series, served almost as a companion piece to A Single Girl, showcasing Ledoyen's appealing presence as a 15-year-old orphan with beauty and smarts to spare who receives proposals of marriage from all quarters while sympathetic viewers root for her not to accept any. Ledoyen also added to her following with popular portrayals as the love object in Edward Yang's clever Taipei-made spy comedy Mahjong (1996) and as another pregnant girl, this time in a middle-class family, in Claude Chabrol's thriller La Ceremonie/The Ceremony (1996), co-starring Isabelle Huppert.

      Much as Jacques Demy had done for Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), the Demy-like musical Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (1998) provided an almost uninterrupted homage to Ledoyen's photogenic personality and physique. Part of the fine ensemble for Assayas' Late August, Early September, considered the director's most mature effort to date, she starred opposite Guillame Canet (as her bartender boyfriend) in En Plein coeur/In All Innocence (both also 1998), a re-make of the 1958 Bardot film En Cas de malheur in which she played an alluring thief (Bardot's role) who has an affair with her lawyer. After making her English language debut that year in the small role of a young mother who gives up her child in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, she increased her American exposure immeasurably in The Beach (2000). The triangular love story re-teamed her with Canet as a French couple who encounter Leonardo DiCaprio while backpacking through Thailand, accompanying him in search of a utopian paradise.

      She subsequently returned to French television in a mini-series version of Les Miserables (2000), starring Gerard Depardieu and John Malkovich and acted in the acclaimed comedic murder mystery 8 Women for which she won an ensemble award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2002.

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