By Arthur Lubow
May 30, 1983 12:00 PM

When the Los Angeles car thief played by Richard Gere confesses that Valerie Kaprisky leaves him “breathless,” it’s easy to see why. With her yellow-green eyes and the lithe body of a cat, Kaprisky, 19, is agilely poised on the fence between kittenlike innocence and unleashed passion. In the steamy Hollywood remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic, the French actress performs her nude scenes with Gere with such smoldering sincerity that it hardly seems like acting. The public seems to be buying it too—Breathless grossed a hot $4.4 million on its opening weekend. Kaprisky frankly admits she doesn’t know how to distinguish her character’s feelings for Gere from her own. When she left Los Angeles last summer to return to Paris after two months of filming, tears streamed down her face. “It was wonderful working with Richard,” she explains. “He gives you everything to react to. We were not acting the love scenes. They were half real. You can’t say you act only when they say ‘Action!’ ”

The selection of the unknown actress to co-star with Gere, 33, was the ending of an R-rated Cinderella story. Producer Martin Erlichman, who proved his eye for talent when he signed Barbra Streisand to a management contract 23 years ago, spotted the topless photos of Kaprisky in a French magazine last June. She was asked to read for the part of Monica, a French architecture student at UCLA who falls in love with an American hoodlum. (This was a reversal of nationalities from the original, which was set in Paris and starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.) Auditioning at an open casting call in Paris for Erlichman, Gere and director Jim McBride, Kaprisky recalls, “I was terrible.” But she was called back the next day, and two days later she was flown to Los Angeles for a screen test.

In that five-minute test, she and Gere lie on a bed naked and glistening with sweat. As they speak, Gere slowly and noisily starts kissing his way up her body, starting at her lap. When the scene was filmed, only the director, cinematographer and camera operator were watching—even the sound man holding a boom mike stood behind a partition. Although Gere was not required to perform the scene in the nude, he did it that way, says Erlichman, so that Valerie would feel more comfortable. If that was the reasoning, it worked. Kaprisky won the role and was told that Gere wanted her cast because she was someone he would like to make love to. “I think it shows in the movie,” says Kaprisky. “If you don’t really feel like doing it, it shows.”

Certainly Valerie was enthusiastic. Before Breathless, Valerie’s only screen credits were in two semi-porn flicks in France. To star in a $7.5 million Hollywood romance was too farfetched even to dream about. “When you are a French actress, you never think about making anything but French films,” she says. And while she’d heard of Gere’s reputation for being difficult (Debra Winger loathed him by the time they were through filming An Officer and a Gentleman), Valerie swears he’s a peach. “Richard is not aloof and cold, not at all,” she says. “He told me that he was very friendly and open in the beginning of his career and was very disappointed with what happened. He’s afraid of people, and when you’re afraid of people, you’re aggressive.” Less self-protective than Gere, Kaprisky was jolted when the movie was over and he left immediately to shoot his next film, The Honorary Consul, in Mexico. “People told me that friendships made when making a movie end,” she reflects. “Without paying attention, I opened my heart too much, and when I tried to close it, it wouldn’t.”

Despite her affection for Richard, Valerie insists that both performers kept in mind their prior romantic commitments. While shooting in Los Angeles, Valerie had dinner with Gere’s longtime steady, Brazilian artist Sylvia Martins, 27. “I was never jealous of her, but I’m sure she was jealous of me,” says Valerie. “After our dinner she felt secure because she knew I had a boyfriend. If Richard and I had known each other in different conditions, maybe I would have loved him, but I am in love with someone else.” Valerie doesn’t much like to talk about her two-year relationship with Stefan Holmes, 23, a cinematographer and short-subject director. He doesn’t want a share of her limelight, and she wants to maintain her “mystery—to give people something to dream about.” The couple live in a one-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up above a dog-grooming salon in the fashionable eighth arrondissement of Paris. She says they like to sleep in the nude in the summer and make love in the morning before breakfast. “It is even better if I fast for two days,” she says, “because the excitement is much higher.” When not in the bedroom—which is equipped with a large TV, a VCR and a stereo—Valerie enjoys cooking, sometimes spending a whole day in the kitchen. “I had a boyfriend once who was a bodybuilder before it became fashionable, and he got me involved in health food,” she explains. Since Stefan prefers steak, Valerie tries to be flexible. She worries that if Breathless makes her famous, the strain will destroy their relationship. Still, she is not interested in marriage. “I would be afraid to get married,” she explains. “When you’re not married, you’re not sure about tomorrow, and that’s why you live your love fully. I think I would like to have a child, but I do not think marriage is necessary. Maybe it is good for taxes.”

For Valerie, who earned about $40,000 for Breathless, taxes are a very recent concern. Born in Paris to a now retired real estate salesman, she was raised in Cannes from the age of 8. The family’s ethnic mixture is an exotic bouillabaisse—Turkish and Argentine on her father’s side, Polish on her mother’s. Even as a child, Valerie says, “I would look at myself in the mirror and start crying over nothing, just imagining that there was a camera on me.” She thought the acting profession would be impenetrable for a girl without connections, but as she matured into a beautiful teenager, she quickly learned that movie connections in Cannes could be made easily every May, when the famous international film festival convenes. When she was 15½, Valerie attended many festival-related parties and spent hours improving her tan at the beach. She recalls: “Some of the people I met at the beach and the parties asked me, ‘Who are you, what’s your name?’ I told them ‘Valerie,’ and they said, ‘Valerie who? What have you done?’ And I said, ‘Go to school,’ and they said, ‘No, no, what movies have you done?’ And somehow I began to think, ‘Wow! I mean, why not?’ ”

A year before graduating from the French equivalent of high school, Valerie told her father she wanted to study acting in Paris. “I thought if I said no, she might do something I would regret later,” he observes, “so after a few days I said ‘Okay.’ ” In Paris Valerie earned her baccalaureate degree at the Victor Hugo Lycée and took her mother’s maiden name as her stage name to avoid confusion with another actress. She also found some modeling work, most notably for Carven perfume (although she prefers Karl Lagerfeld’s Chloé). Valerie admits that in Cannes she had already fallen prey to the seductive casting-couch moves of at least one director. Just last summer she sued director Jean Becker for breach of contract over a promised movie role that eventually went to Isabelle Adjani. “For me it is very difficult to tell if someone is trustable,” she says. She was burned again when a photographer she thought of as a friend sold seminude photos of her to Paris Match. But in that case, there was a happy ending. Those were the photos that caught the eye of producer Erlichman and led to the role in Breathless.

Though most critics have hailed her performance in Breathless (the New York Times called her a “young Genevieve Bujold”), Valerie doesn’t know what to expect next and isn’t all that impressed with herself. “My legs are bad, and I think I look like a fat-cheeked baby,” she complains. But the prospect of becoming an American star—say on the order of that other European beauty, Nastassia Kinski—has clearly crossed her mind. “If I become famous,” she says, “the man people would see me with would never be the real lover.” Paparazzi, take note.