A valentine to lonely itinerants, When the Sea Rises celebrates northern Gallic hamlets much in the same way that Jacques Demy swooned over French port towns like Cherbourg and Rochefort. Traveling from Valenciennes to Lens and Lille, Irne (Moreau, who also codirected and coscripted with Gilles Porte) performs her bizarre, quasifeminist one-woman show, Dirty Business: Sex and Crime, on any stage that will have her. The zaftig thespian, her arms smeared in red body makeup and her face hidden behind a commedia dell'arte mask, finds appreciative audiences in tiny cultural centers and even retirement homes, but her most ardent fan is Dries (Willaert), who comes to the actor's aid when her car breaks down.
Hapless, starstruck Dries, with a minor show-business connection of his own as an operator of giant puppets, romances Irne, who dutifully phones each night the husband and son she left at home. "Life's nice with you. I like it," he coos as the two bounce from a boozy street festival to the cramped apartment of Dries's parents. The tender courtship fades quickly, but its peaks—a hotel romp, an alfresco nap near a refinery—are beautifully crafted moments of fleeting intimacy. Moreau, who won a Csar for Best Actress last year, and Willaert, who suggests a more vulnerable Robert Carlyle, portray their characters with great compassion—like smitten Drama Club oddballs on an endless road trip. (Opens Fri; see Index for venues. See also "North country," page 81.)—Melissa Anderson