It’s a little known fact that, back in 2001, one of the early obstacles to the ambitions of the incoming mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, was that his election in March came just a fortnight before the arrival in cinemas of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. A whimsical depiction of contemporary Parisian life, the film is one of the highest grossing French movies ever, and its international popularity was a serious setback to the Socialist mayor, who had set out to modernise the French capital. His aim was totally thwarted by this chocolate-box, twinkling view of the City of Light and its eponymous heart, who danced around Montmartre doing good deeds on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
Audrey Tautou, the gamine unknown who played the role, suddenly became the face of cute, lovable, retrospective Paris. If Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress epitomised 1950s Manhattan, it was her bobbed namesake who leapt up the Eiffel Tower blowing kisses, and claimed the city as her own.
Cafe des 2 Moulins, the actual cafe on th Rue Lepic where Amelie “worked”, is now simply known as “the Amelie cafe”. It is decorated with posters and table mats throughout, all showing the winsome Tautou smiling impishly – I know because I was so inspired by the film that I bought a tiny flat just off “the Amelie street” in Montmartre.
Over a decade later, the 36-year-old Tautou is still as gorgeous: tiny, dark-eyed, sparklingly elegant in heels, trousers and a ruffled, dark blouse. Will she ever escape being known as Amelie? A Gallic shrug. “It is an iconic film,” she says in a heavy (and devastatingly sexy) French accent. “The relationship between the audience and this movie is very particular. It has a mystery and touches people deep inside. In a way, it doesn’t really belong to me.”
She clearly has no intention of being defined by the role, as her subsequent parts (in The Da Vinci Code, for example) have made clear. Tautou plays the titular role in new French film Therese Desqueyroux (on FilmFlex and in cinemas from Friday 7 June) and her latest character is as thoroughly venomous as Amelie is sweetly nice. Audiences might be rather astonished, but it’s not a problem for Tautou. Why on earth should the fact that she once played Mademoiselle Nice stop her from playing Madame Nasty?
“I really don’t think that the audience is that naive. Therese Desqueyroux is a much darker movie, it’s transgressive, but even if I was playing another...” she pauses to describe her career-making role “...young cutie, the power of Amelie means that for some it will always be the one. But for me, I am an actress; I have the luck to very quickly explore different types of work.”
Forget the young cutie. Here is Tautou, in shapeless dresses and horrendous hair, playing a pinched, monstrous chain-smoker. Set in south-west France, in the 1920s, Therese Desqueyroux is the story of an unhappily married woman eaten away by jealousy, who dreams of arson and whose bitterness regarding her in-laws leads to terrible consequences. If Amelie was the epitome of good, Thérèse is cynicism personified, a malevolent spider crouching at the heart of a French pastoral idyll.
“I really wanted to take off the sweetness I have in my nature and try to be as dry as possible,” says Tautou of the role. “But I don’t think that Therese is a monster. The society she lives in makes her a monster.”
The film, based on the classic French novel by François Mauriac, was the last from the late French director Claude Miller and, in his honour, was chosen to close last year’s Cannes film festival. It’s a sobering watch and not very Hollywood. But then neither is Tautou. Born in Beaumont, in the central French region of the Auvergne, she has Gallic flair, charm and beauty stamped right through her.
“I am very French. And in Hollywood, the pressure is different. It’s not the same in France. Of course, oui, the idea of being ‘bankable’ in France exists, but it’s not as unforgiving.”
How is it in Hollywood, then? I think we all know, but Tautou puts it her way.
“People staring at every single millimetre of your body and what you wear, it is a huge pressure. Some people are happy with that, but me, non.” She smiles, winningly.
Even though Amelie was one hell of a springboard, she was never going to decamp to Burbank. “Getting a role, like in The Da Vinci Code, that’s fine,” she says. “Once in a while, I would love to, but it doesn’t work like that. They are not just going to come and pick me up as an actress, with all the wonderful actresses they have. If you want to build a career in Hollywood, that is different. You have to move there. And for a French person like me... I would have to be away from my friends and family. Cinema is my passion. I admire American directors and love American movies. But my life is also something which is very important, and my ambition is not big enough.”
It’s not the sort of speech you would expect coming from an American or British actress of Tautou’s standing. But then the French are different. France is proud to have a thriving national film industry, and French women do seem to possess a certain type of confidence. Tautou knows what Hollywood is; she admires it, but it’s a testimony to her and also the stature of the French film industry that she’s content to stay this side of the pond.
“In Hollywood, there is a very important marketing, business, branding side. And I really don’t think I could be formatted for that.” She looks at me with those dark eyes, that nut-brown hair, Gallic cheekbones, and clothes that display effortless style rather than slavish adherence to fashion. Frankly, it’s as if she is wrapped up in a virtual Tricolor. Audrey Tautou, sharp as a whip and beautiful as they get... Vous avez raison.
Therese Desqueyroux is in UK cinemas today.