Marie-France Pisier met the press about a month ago, no less than 60 TV reporters in two days plus endless newspaper types, and everyone had the same question: "Why did an actress like you chose to do "The Other Side of Midnight'?"

For ever since she jumped the gun and debuted in Truffaut's "Love at 20" at age 16, Pisier has made a whole series of terribly serious, terribly French art films, things like "French Provincial," "Serail," even Alain Roboe-Grillet's "Trans-Europ-Express," a series that culminated in the charming "Cousin, Cousine." So what was she doing in an overblown Hollywood epic that even producer Frank Yablans allowed, in crushing understatement, "is not intellectual movie of the decade."

"I tell people that for an actress there comes a time when you can't do all your life films that are very successful with the critics but not with the audiences," she replies in charmingly accented English.

"My idea was very cynical, that it would be good for me to make a commercial movie, and it would be helpful also for directors in France who wanted to use me if I had a big success. I hate so much to be labeled 'the intellectual actress of the New Wave."

If the first week's grosses in New York, pegged by Variety as a "huge" $224,000 in four theaters, are an indication, that success seems likely despite the barrier of general reviewer disapproval. "I was surprised a lot of critics took the thing so seriously," says Pisier, smiling. "It doesn't make harm to anybody, you just have fun."

In fact what is most appealing about this actress is that she knows exactly the kind of goofy paradigm of $ $ exaggerated romanticism she has gotten involved in. "For me," she says, "it is kitsch melodrama. I thought it would be fun to play a naive girl who ends up a bitch. The only way to look at the film is to laugh."

As Noelle Page, a woman scorned who spouts Niagara-like torrents of love and hate, Pisier gets a chance to go through a lot of nonsense, including an allegedly steamy love episode where rather eclectic use is made of large handfuls of ice, a scene she neatly labels "one of the funniest in the film."

All this is some distance from her role as one of the neglected spouses in the wildly successful "Cousin, Cousine," a film whose U.S. triumph so buffaloed the French that it has been rereleased there to take advantage of audiences eager to resee it and figure out why Americans liked it so much.

Pisier's explanation is that the film's happily adulterous man and woman "are able to leave their families without feeling guilty. This is very new for Americans, they would like very much to feel that way but they can't."

Working on 'The Other Side of Midnight' also satisfied Pisier's longterm curiosity about both Los Angeles and the Hollywood method of film-making.

Los Angeles in particular and California in general she found to be "like a huge clinic, a huge hospital. Even weekends, people are working so much to relax, it's always a struggle." The Hollywood system she found much the same, with "everyone obsessed with the fear of wasting time, wasting money. In France we usually just sit down in the middle of the day and say, 'Well, what should we do about this?'"

The experiment completed, then Pisier is "really happy now to go back" and be working on, no surprise, "a small intellectual film." In France, she concludes, "you feel much more like in a family."