At the Venice Film Festival last month, I chanced upon the Italian actress Monica Bellucci being interviewed by an earnest eastern European journalist, and discreetly eavesdropped on their conversation. "How does it feel to be so adored?" he gushed. "In my country you are worshipped like a goddess."
One might imagine it hard to frame a suitable reply, but Bellucci, calm and composed, answered him with commendable grace - while noticeably shifting the subject from her status as an object of desire and towards her profession as a working actress: "Thank you!" she said with a dazzling smile. "It's good to be loved in a country that's not yours. It's surprising when you go to Russia or Istanbul or Brazil and people have seen your movies - and interesting to speak with people who come from other cultures."
This was a deft handling of the situation, because, of course, the subtext in his question was all about her remarkable good looks. Bellucci is a renowned screen beauty; she knows it and the journalist knew it. But she's also a serious actress with a career going back 20 years, and prefers being regarded as such, rather than as a celebrity icon, sighed over longingly by fans.
A few minutes later, it is my turn to quiz her, and I find myself sitting opposite her, reflecting on the distracting effect of beauty. For the record, she looks stunning. Bellucci, 47, has olive skin, large doe-like eyes and long, lustrous dark hair, and is wearing a modified version of a man's black three-piece suit. In person, she has a quality best described as imposing.
At the moment she is the calm at the centre of a storm. Her new film, That Summer (Un été brûlant in its original French title), was screened at the festival the day before we meet, and its opening scene is the talk of Venice. In it, a nude Bellucci reclines on a bed, perfectly still, but gazing into the camera's lens. Her eyes have a come-hither look and at one point she extends an arm as if to beckon a lover. As it turns out, this image, which resembles the re-creation of a painting, is preying on the mind of her troubled younger partner (played by Louis Garrel), from whom she has separated.
Was it a hard scene to play? She looks amused: "No, it was not hard to be lying down in bed." Still, the controversy perplexes her: "Everyone here is talking about this scene, and yet there's a David Cronenberg film here with so many sexy scenes involving a 25-year-old girl [she means Keira Knightley] and no one says anything about it. Instead, everybody talks about this short moment, of my nudity in a scene where nothing happened. It created such a big thing. And I'm 47. So I wonder why?"
Her question is slightly disingenuous. Bellucci has an undeniably sensual screen presence, and she is firmly within the tradition of sultry Italian screen actresses like Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida - earthy, womanly and voluptuous, with a fiery allure. Her 5ft 7in frame, unlike those of stick-insect catwalk models or the rail-thin actresses who dominate cinema screens these days, has the ability to set pulses racing and tongues wagging. Of course her nude scene caused a stir.
Yet her memory of shooting it has a different, surprising dimension. "I think it's a beautiful, poetic scene, and this was a special moment in my life. My femininity was so fragile, because I'd had a baby only a month and half before, and I was breast-feeding on set. In real life I was breast-feeding every two hours, night and day, yet on the set I was playing someone really the opposite - a selfish woman who just wants to change men all the time. So I'm very proud of that scene."
None of this comes as a surprise to her fans in France. She spends most of her time in Paris, with her husband of 12 years, the actor Vincent Cassel. (They also have homes in London and Rome.) The birth of their second daughter, Léonie, in May last year was front-page news (they already have an older child, Deva, who is 7).
Like Carla Bruni, Bellucci is a glamorous, artistic Italian woman in her 40s who has cut a swathe through French high society; her pregnancy last year was monitored by gossip magazines with almost as much intensity as Bruni's more recently.
She and Cassel have the same gilded status that minor royalty might enjoy in other countries. They are a starry couple, and female fans look to Bellucci (often known simply as Bellissima in France) as a style icon.
She is an ambassador for Dior, and even allowing for France's consuming obsession with fashion and all things chic, it's astonishing how much is known about her attempts to maintain her allure.
Thus we know from such French publications as Gala, Elle and Madame Figaro that she moistens her skin with lotions and gels from Dior's HydrAction range. She favours the face-firming action of La Prairie Skin Caviar Luxe Cream. She adds colour to her eyelids, specifically Dior's 5 Color No. 790 - enhanced by Diorshow black mascara.
We know that for years she has practised yoga several times a week, swims to boost her fitness and relaxes at the exclusive, luxurious Nuxe Spa, a Parisian beauty treatment centre.
Yet Bellucci is virtually a luxury brand in her own right - a woman with the power to confer chic upon a designer or beauty product by a mere association with her. She has made something of a return to modelling this past year, on one occasion for a joint-branding campaign between her old friends Dolce & Gabbana and Martini. She also recently fronted a campaign alongside the supermodel Christy Turlington for Louis Vuitton. And I was reliably informed that in Venice she was wearing Scarpe Hogan Donna heels. These are a few of her favourite things.
Bellucci grew up in a quiet little town on the borders of Umbria and Tuscany, where her father, Luigi, owned a trucking company and her mother, Maria, was a painter. In her teens, Monica realised she was not cut out for small town life and moved to the nearby city of Perugia and studied law at its university.
She began modelling on the side, and was so successful she quit her studies. She moved to Milan, Italy's fashion capital, and did her share of catwalk modelling and print ads for designers including Dolce & Gabbana. Her looks had not gone unnoticed and it was only a matter of time before TV and films came calling.
Bellucci made her acting debut at the age of 26, in an Italian TV movie called Life with the Sons, and then had a potentially huge career break, being cast opposite Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins in Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 horror film, Bram Stoker's Dracula. She played one of Dracula's three brides.
But although Coppola's film was a modest hit, the ambitious Bellucci was sufficiently entranced by acting to take her career into her own hands. She decided to leave Italy, because she found its film industry too small and limiting. "I love my country," she says, "but back then they didn't spend enough money to promote films internationally." She decided France, with its stable, prolific industry, could advance her career, so she moved to Paris, worked at improving her French and began looking for work.
The film that finally kick-started her career arrived in 1996. L'Appartement was a stylish romantic mystery thriller, and starred a new young French star named Vincent Cassel. He was 30, two years younger than Bellucci. They fell in love, moved in together and married in 1999. They quickly became the hottest young couple in Paris. Bellucci was on her way.
With her siren looks and evident big-screen appeal, graduating to Hollywood might have seemed an obvious move. But Bellucci has played her career shrewdly, looking for long-term satisfaction over a quick buck. Most of her subsequent films have been made in France or Italy.
"I love American movies, they are all so different, and some of them are big-budget. Every time I leave for America, everyone says I'm going off to be part of Hollywood. But I'm European, so I've never lived there. I've done American movies once in a while, but my base is Europe.
"I have no rules about the films I accept. I choose by instinct. You follow your passion to work with a certain director and you take the risks. Sometimes I've made bad choices - but they're my choices."
Other choices have been intriguing. She joined forces with Keanu Reeves and sibling film-makers Larry and Andy Wachowski in the second and third films in the Matrix franchise, playing Persephone, an anguished character trapped in the Matrix like her namesake in Greek mythology. Bellucci also clambered aboard Terry Gilliam's 2005 fantasy adventure The Brothers Grimm as the Mirror Queen, whose beautiful face shatters like glass.
But she had proved her acting abilities by starring in the 2000 Italian war drama Malèna, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso), as a Sicilian village beauty, widowed in the Second World War. In desperation she becomes a prostitute for its German occupying soldiers.
In one shocking sequence, vengeful women from the village attack Malèna and cut off her hair as a punishment. Bellucci played this harrowing scene herself without a double; it marked her maturity as an actress.
Now she's at a point where few question her credentials. And given the extraordinary attention her beauty commands, she is calm and rational on the subject of being famous. In That Summer she plays Angèle, a self-regarding actress who, she says, could not be further from herself.
"She's a woman who obviously wants to be at the centre of attention and forever adored, a bit like a child," Bellucci says. "That sometimes happens. But I'm really not like that.
"I think it's painful when as an actor you become confused between who you are and the image created by the covers of magazines, publicity and film roles. That image goes out to the public and you can't control it anymore." She cocks her head. "And that, I think, is very dangerous."
Instead, she insists, her requirements are simple: "I come from Italy. I need to have a child and a family. I want my life filled with music and fashion, and my artistic needs met."
The Bellucci file
BORN September 30, 1964, Citta di Castello, Umbria, Italy
EDUCATION Liceo Classico (secondary school), University of Perugia
FAMILY Father Luigi, who owned a transport company; and mother Maria, a painter
FIRST JOB She started modelling at 16, when attending the Liceo Classico
LIVES London, Paris and Rome
HOLIDAY CHOICE Puglia, southern Italy
LISTENS TO Soul, rap and funk music
HOBBIES Supports Italy's national football team
HERO Rita Levi-Montalcini, the scientist and Nobel Laureate
SPEAKS English, French, Italian, Spanish
SECRET VICE Milk chocolate, with almonds
QUOTE "Instead of going to the gym, I dress in black - a lot more practical and much more fun." (Daily Mail, 2009)