Audrey Tautou is as French as can be. When I meet the actress to discuss two different films, first in Paris and more recently in London’s Corinthia Hotel, she is a diminutive bundle of everyone’s favourite Gallic mannerisms. She shrugs, pouts, rolls her eyes, utters “ooh la la” in her thickest, sultriest French-accented English. She’s expressive, frequently blunt. “Mais, vous parlez Français?” she demands, accusingly, in our initial meeting. Barely enough to order coffee, I reply.
There’s a disapproving tut, because while Tautou’s English is perfectly decent, “you English journalists never understand what I’m saying”. She flags up two offending articles in recent times, one which claimed she was ready to quit acting. “I have to spend three years denying it to people,” she frowns, while also partly blaming herself for the rumour-mongering. “Because I don’t do five films a year, people maybe think that acting is not essential to my life. But if I worked any more than I do, I’d have no personal life.”
A translator is on hand to smooth the conversational flow, although in fact the actress gets by just fine, and the irresistibly charming side of Tautou, the one Jean-Pierre Jeunet first displayed to the world in his Parisian fantasy Amélie, is also much in evidence. When I tell her she’s an icon of “Frenchness”, far from scoffing, she’s comfortable with the concept, as long as I’m referring to “the very positive aspects of being French... We have a lot of faults, which I try to hide with my professionalism.” Tautou purses her lips in mischievous delight. “We moan all the time, we can be very arrogant and over-proud of what we are.” With her flawless skin, pixie-ish hair and sophisticated style, Tautou at 37 is still a remarkably gamine beauty, the perfect frontwoman for elegant ad campaigns (she’s the current face of Chanel No 5). She has two films hitting UK cinemas this summer. The first is Chinese Puzzle, the third chapter in writer-director Cédric Klapisch’s trilogy that began 12 years ago with L’Auberge Espagnole. That lively, poetic portrait of student friends and lovers living in bohemian squalor in Barcelona was a success for all concerned, and gained further momentum on DVD as a university residence-hall staple. Klapisch revisited the characters in 2005’s Russian Dolls, but waited a further eight before embarking on Chinese Puzzle, which sees Xavier (Romain Duris), Isabelle (Cécile De France), Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and Martine (Tautou) in New York City.
The first film’s frivolity and bubbliness are still in evidence in Klapisch’s stylistic flourishes, but his impulsive, carefree characters have grown more responsible and less crazy with age. Tautou is younger then her Chinese Puzzle character, and banters that she was infuriated to be the youngest actress on set, yet stuck playing the oldest character in the film.
“That’s the only thing that’s not credible in his film – I definitely don’t look 40!” On the opposite end of the spectrum, in Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, which also stars Duris, Tautou plays Chloé, a character who’s much younger in Boris Vian’s source novel, L’Ecume des Jours – a girl on borrowed time because she has a water lily growing in her lungs, but nonetheless radiating positivity and tolerance, the ultimate sunshine girl. Like many of her countryfolk, Tautou read and adored Vian’s book as a teenager. In France, the adaptation didn’t receive glowing reviews, but with less invested in the source material, British audiences may find more enjoyment in Gondry’s typically surrealistic fantasy.
When I interviewed Duris, he told me Tautou had casting approval on Mood Indigo and could have rejected him as her co-star. The actress smiles broadly when I bring it up. “Yes, that’s true,” says Tautou. “Michel asked me if I could stand Romain and I said, ‘I can stand him very well’. I adore Romain and admire him as an actor. We are accomplices.” They are alike in other respects. Both are content being big fish in the Gallic pond, rather than mimicking Marion Cotillard or Mélanie Laurent by seeking Hollywood careers (although Tautou starred in The Da Vinci Code), and neither pursues directors with intent, willing, as the actress describes it, to “suivre le courant” (follow the flow). Better to be wanted than take up the chase. “I keep my wishes and dreams secret, like a child,” she says. “Also, I don’t have a clear image of what I represent to directors, and I’m not interested in finding out. That’s why I’m always surprised when a director hires me because I wouldn’t know where to put myself.”
Juliet Binoche once told me she makes the occasional Hollywood film, like Godzilla, just to keep up her profile. “I don’t think about that. I’m much more selfish,” says Tautou. “I think about my own pleasure.” Surely she had several more Hollywood offers in the wake of The Da Vinci Code. “They don’t run after you,” she counters. “The Da Vinci Code was a great experience and I was lucky to be chosen, but I don’t like the pressure that goes with all these big things. I don’t want to be any more famous at all.” After Amélie, Tautou sent out signals she wasn’t willing to move to LA, and followed Jeunet’s film with Dirty Pretty Things, which doused any plans to turn her career into a stretch of romantic fables or rom-coms. She tells me a story about her grandmother letting her horror be known when Tautou considered emigrating to New York.
“She said, ‘Are you telling me that you prefer America to France? How can you say that?’,” laughs Tautou. “So I went back to Paris.” But she doesn’t sense any ingrained snobbishness in France towards actors who do take the plunge; it’s the opposite, in fact. “Nobody understands why I’m not more interested. I always have to justify myself. It’s like, ‘she refused Hollywood’, but that’s not the case. It’s just that I didn’t have any interesting offers and I’m in a privileged position. I feel very French and I need my life here; I need all my friends and family.”
Having said that, she’s smitten with London and tells me that she frequently dreams of moving to Notting Hill, home to many happy memories when she resided in the west London enclave while making Dirty Pretty Things and The Da Vinci Code. “Oh la la, I would love to spend two or three years here,” she coos. “I love the energy of this city.” So what’s stopping you? “What’s stopping me? Because I have a very good reason to stay in France.” Tautou, who keeps her private life under tight wraps, refuses to be drawn when I suggest her “good reason” could also live in Notting Hill. “That’s the problem,” she laughs. “My good reason can’t come to London.”
In recent years, Tautou has been offered more roles that show off her dramatic range, including Coco Before Chanel (2009) and Thérèse Raquin (2012). But everywhere she goes, it’s still Amélie most people are obsessed by and want to discuss, but she’s no longer burdened by it. “When I see how this movie lasts, I understand now how special it is. That’s a gift.”
One of the aforementioned articles that put Tautou’s hackles up claimed that a section of the French critical fraternity just couldn’t fathom Amélie’s or her own success, although in recent years they’d come round to her charms and she was now adored. Does she agree with that assessment? Tautou scoffs. “When you are a discovery for people, they are always more welcoming than when you’ve been working for 10 years. The reviews become more severe. You have to keep surprising people and that’s not easy.”
‘Chinese Puzzle’ goes on general release on 20 June; ‘Mood Indigo’ will be released on 1 August