Olivier Martinez rose from the edges of Paris to the cusp of Stardom ...

Fall 1997. "He's got a face that can be anyone, " says Karl Lagerfeld approvingly, as he shoots Olivier Martinez's portrait.

Well, not just anyone. Olivier Martinez is France's brightest young movie hero -- as well as an heir apparent to cinema's classic Latin lovers. Yet he also has the kind of easy, genuine charm that makes even comments like "I live more by actions than words" sound credible.

Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche described Martinez on French national television recently as the most romantic actor around. And she should know; Binoche met and fell in love with him in 1994 while galloping about the set of Jean-Paul Rappeneau's love-in-a-time-of-cholera epic The Horseman on the Roof. They have been together ever since and now live in the chic western Paris suburbs, where Binoche bought a house.

Just back from a holiday in the Moroccan desert, Martinez is sitting on a plastic banquette upstairs at the Cafe Flore in Paris. He's dressed in disheveled chic: faded low-slung jeans, battered motorcycle jacket and around his neck a twisted Moroccan cotton scarf that can double as a turban. The look is semi-tough, a combination of self-assurance and naivete; he wears a nerdy peaked moped helmet when he roars around town on his monster Honda 1000 CBX motorcycle.

But unlike many French actors -- famous for wallowing in existential anguish -- Martinez doesn't go in for soul-searching. He insists Morocco was no voyage of self-discovery.

"I know it's a bit of a caricature, an actor going off into the desert," he says with a wide grin, chatting animatedly about sand-dune surfing in a jeep and helping Berbers guard their camels and goats. "But I just went to have fun. I didn't go looking to find out if there's life after death, I should think I'll find out when I am dead."

At 31, Martinez has done only five films, but he has worked with some of the best actors and directors in France. He was just out of acting school -- the prestigious Conservatoire National d'Art Dramatique -- and selling running shoes for a living when director Jean-Jacques Beineix picked him to star with Yves Montrand in the film IP5. He then went on to work with Marcello Mastroianni in Bertrand Blier's 1,2,3, Soleil, for which he won a Cesar in 1994 as most promising actor.

With just those two movies under his belt, he landed the lead as a dashing Italian aristocrat in Horseman, the most expensive French movie ever made, a $29 million production based on a novel by Jean Giono. Martinez played Angelo, the chivalrous and utterly virtuous colonel who escorts Pauline (Binoche) through a plague-ridden Provence back to her homeland and husband.