You might think it would be hard to shock a French movie producer. But actress/director Josiane Balasko, who is currently visiting the country to present her latest film, Cliente (the English title is French Gigolo), which just opened here and which is the opening attraction in the Sixth French Film Festival (it runs through June 20 at the Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Cinematheques) managed to do just that. "The subject matter, it was just too much for them," says Balasko, who has had a long and distinguished career as an actress in France, and who, in recent years, has turned her hand to directing. But what was too much? Sex-for-hire is a theme of countless movies, isn't it? "Yes, but Cliente is a little different," explains Balasko. She's right: What makes this film different is that it tells the story of Marco (Eric Caravaca), a French construction worker who secretly moonlights as a gigolo to finance his wife's beauty salon. Although he gets into it for the money, he isn't repulsed by his clients. On the contrary, he is attracted to them and likes them. But what is even more threatening than his enjoyment of his work is the way the story depicts Judith (Nathalie Baye), one of his clients. "She is a bright woman, successful, attractive, who makes the decision to pay a gigolo," says Balasko. "She is not mentally ill. She is normal - this is just what works for her." Producers backed off when Balasko went looking for financing for this film about six years ago, in spite of her track record directing movies. In 1995, she directed the controversial but critically acclaimed French Twist, about a woman who discovers her husband has been unfaithful and then invites a lesbian to move in with them, with whom she has an affair. Victoria Abril plays the wife and Balasko herself played the lesbian. UNDETERRED, BALASKO tried a different tack to finance Cliente, one that took several years but eventually paid off. She simply wrote the story as a novel, which she published. The novel received rave reviews and then the financing fell into place. What drew her to this story? "I thought of it as a movie a lot of women would want to see," says Balasko, who has made a career for herself as a leading lady/character actress, in a wide range of roles, including the object of Gerard Depardieu's affection in Bertrand Blier's Trop Belle Pour Toi. "In fact, when I went to the first showing of the film in a theater, the audience was all women. "I wanted to make this because Judith is an interesting character. She could have a traditional relationship with a man, a love relationship, but she was very hurt by her ex-husband and doesn't want to be hurt again." How much she has been hurt is conveyed in a brief scene in which Judith runs into her ex-husband, who is out with his pregnant 20-something wife and toddler. "Judith has decided to be alone and free, she doesn't believe she could love a man one more time," explains Balasko. But Marco, handsome and confident, but not sleazy, is so different from her usual boy-toys, Judith finds herself reluctantly captivated. Nathalie Baye, one of France's leading actresses, who has worked with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (and is probably best known to English-speaking audiences for her role as Leonardo DiCaprio's mother in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can), gives a brilliant, subtle performance as the beautiful and sophisticated but vulnerable heroine. Balasko, a longtime friend of Baye's, said she had no trouble recruiting actors to appear in Cliente, in spite of the difficulties she had in persuading producers to fork over the needed financing. "Nathalie said to me, as soon as she read the script, 'If you make Cliente, I will be a client of yours, please.'" Balasko co-stars as Irene, Judith's sister. The two work together at a mini home-shopping network they own, live in adjacent apartments and bemoan the quality of the men they meet. But while Judith buys her pleasures, Irene continues to search for love, hoping to meet a brilliant scientist or intellectual. Instead, she finds wild passion with Jim (George Aguilar), a Native American Judith recruits to their shopping show to promote a teepee-style camping tent. While he gets offended by the stereotyped "Indian" pitch he has been hired to deliver, Irene falls for his honesty and intensity. Although the hulking cowboy Jim and the petite Parisian Irene provide a comic counterpoint to Judith and Marco's story, they serve a serious purpose in the narrative. "Judith and Irene are the strongest couple in the film," notes Balasko. "In some ways, this film is the story of their bond. They can have hard words, they fight, but they are very close. They tell each other the truth. So even though Judith is happy when Irene meets Jim, there is real jealousy there." ANOTHER UNCONVENTIONAL plot turn involves Marco's relationship with his wife, Fanny, from whom he conceals his second career as long as he can. "At first they are the romantic couple. It's as if she is the victim," says Balasko. The two live in cramped quarters in Fanny's mother's house and it's clear that money is his main motivation for engaging in his unconventional sideline. But when Fanny discovers what he is doing, at first she insists he quit, then sees the benefits of getting the extra cash his prostitution brought in. "She becomes very manipulative, almost like a pimp," says Balasko. "I don't judge her, though." But audiences saw the film "as a romantic comedy" and tended to ignore the social commentary implicit in Marco's dilemma. Fanny's sister in the film is played by Balasko's daughter, Marilou Barry, a gifted young actress who starred in Look at Me and a number of other films. How was it directing her daughter? "It was great. On the set, I am a director, not a mother," she says. Her former brother-in-law, Richard Berry, has a small role as Judith's ex-husband. George Aguilar, who plays Jim, is Balasko's husband. "It was a family affair," says Balasko. It will be a busy summer for Balasko, who is promoting Cliente around the world. She is also starring in a new film, La Herisson, which will be released in July. It is the first feature film by a young director, Mona Achache, of whom Balasko speaks admiringly. The film is based on an international best-seller by Muriel Barbery (translated into English as The Elegance of the Hedgehog), about a Parisian concierge (Balasko) who is a closet intellectual and befriends a 12-year-old girl who lives in the building where she works. "It's a wonderful book and a wonderful script," she says. But although she has spent most of her working life in front of the camera, she is very enthusiastic about her relatively new career as a director. "I've learned more from directing than acting," she says. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I had the freedom to make a change if something wasn't working." But don't expect her to become a director-for-hire. "I have been thinking about this subject, living with this story, for six years. I only make a movie when it is something that moves me, something I like enough to spend years with."