Audrey Tautou interview: Ingénue, moi?

Yes, it really is 12 years since 'Amélie'… As its star tells Demetrios Matheou, she has moved on to darker things

Last week the Cannes film festival closed as it began, with one of the most famous faces in France acting as maîtresse de cérémonie. Unlike other festivals, which tend to employ pretty (and, often, vacant) TV presenters to helm their opening and awards ceremonies, Cannes characteristically aims higher, at film stars with a bit of class. Jeanne Moreau was the first, setting the bar high; Audrey Tautou seemed a perfect fit.

That said, Tautou is an unusual star. Now 37, she's still most known for a single role, in the massive 2001 hit Amélie, her career since being respectable but not spectacular; she famously shuns the limelight. And yet there is something about that breakthrough character, the wide-eyed, gamine do-gooder Amélie Poulain, amid one of the most seductive renditions of Paris in cinema, which captured her country's imagination and held it. She was also the face of Chanel No 5 for a spell, and portrayed Coco Chanel on screen. Perhaps this is how she has endeared herself – by representing the very essence of Frenchness.

That allure has given her time to develop as an actress. In the 12 years since Amélie, Tautou has studiously avoid being typecast as an ingénue. Other, early roles included a stalker in He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not, a Turkish asylum seeker in Dirty Pretty Things and the nagging girlfriend – a selfless straight role – among a gaggle of Euro-dishes in Pot Luck. She's since been glamorous (Priceless), comic (Beautiful Lies) and briefly gone Hollywood (The Da Vinci Code). And her acting is about to enter a new, more mature phase. It's a career, she enthusiastically admits, to which Amélie was "a wonderful passport".

An extraordinary thing about Tautou is that whatever she's wearing – today, in a London hotel, it's a white shirt that accentuates her tiny frame – you can't help but focus on her eyes, which really are as black and as hypnotic as on screen. She has an engaging presence to match, with a punchy way of speaking English; until, that is, I try to move the conversation away from films.

On her work, she's eloquent. She tells me that through playing Chanel, in the 2009 film Coco Before Chanel, "I think I discovered a new register. I could express a character who had authority. I could escape the sweetness I had previously often been asked to express, despite myself. Coco gave me the possibility of playing something in a harsher vein, playing with more rigour."

And if that performance suggested a turning point in her career, taking the title role in Thérèse Desqueyroux seals the deal. The disturbing heroine of François Mauriac's 1920s novel is an intelligent woman who nevertheless marries according to the logic of her landowning Catholic family rather than her own, learns the error of her ways and turns to arsenic to solve her dilemma.

"Thérèse came at exactly the right time for me," she says. "I felt I had acquired a certain maturity and gravitas, and I wanted to take on a role that was complex and troubling. What scared me, though, was that I would not be able to show her ugly side, her jealousy, her desire for vengeance." She needn't have worried. It's a chilling performance, not least because it's so enigmatic; though we can perceive Thérèse's spirit, and unhappiness, the thought processes involved when she starts to poison her spouse are withheld. As directed by the late Claude Miller, an occasionally stuffy period piece is enlivened by a mystery and psychological intensity that are almost Hitchcockian.

"Claude sketches intentions rather than showing them," says the actress, "trusting the spectator to pick up the signs. I really loved working in this way. Underplaying is not necessarily more difficult, but it's more radical.

"Thérèse has been taught all her life to not show her feelings. Being forced to keep quiet, she has a constant interior dialogue with herself. I never let myself improvise a single second; every scene I knew exactly at what point she was in her inner turmoil. I think the revolt inside her – the contradiction of hating this bourgeois life yet having to live it – is so powerful that to hold it back she needs a very thick mask. It was a bit like keeping a lid on a volcano."

Tautou was also in Cannes a year ago, when Thérèse Desqueyroux had its premiere; though sadly she was without Miller, a protégé of Truffaut and one of France's leading directors, who had died of cancer shortly after completing the film.

"It was obvious during the shoot that he was ill, because every morning he had to have radiotherapy," she recalls. "But he never complained, he was very discreet, he kept all his strength until the very end. That was amazing." She smiles. "I remember once he came onto the set and I said, 'Wow, Claude, you're so elegant, why are you dressed like that?' And he said, 'This morning I had some medical examinations, so I wanted to impress the sickness.'

"I went to see him a few times afterwards. Of course, at some point we learned that he would die, so it was not a shock. But I never thought he wouldn't … win."

As it happens, her next film is about illness, but Mood Indigo will be an altogether lighter affair than Thérèse Desqueyroux. An adaptation of Boris Vian's cult novel Froth on the Daydream, it is directed by Michel Gondry, the prodigiously inventive music video and film director, most notably of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Tautou plays a woman who has a water lily growing inside her lung, Romain Duris the husband determined to save her.

"It's very difficult to describe this story, because it's completely surreal," she says gaily. "And it was a crazy experience walking on to the set to make it. We travelled in clouds and in upside-down cars; the décor transformed every day. Michel has such a personal way of telling a story. He's a very special director because he's a photographer, a drawer, he understands animation. He's a genius."

Tautou recently told the French newspaper Le Figaro that "celebrity makes me awkward". Her response to it is to reveal no opinion or feeling that doesn't pertain to her films. She is gracefully evasive on such reasonable topics as the recent furore in France over film stars' wages ("I don't want to add oil to the fire") and fashion, despite her Chanel duties ("I'm not a specialist").

When asked how her parents, a teacher and a social worker, have responded to her success, she is lost for words. This reticence may be one reason why her position as poster girl for French cinema has been inherited by Marion Cotillard and Bérénice Bejo, and why, unlike Cotillard, Tautou has not pursued Hollywood further.

"I loved working on The Da Vinci Code, but just because I was in one blockbuster doesn't mean I want to do it all the time. I love my job, but I don't like to be in the spotlight to that extent. I prefer to be in the shadows."

But as soon as we're back to cinema, the sun comes out. She jokes of the lack of opportunities for women given Hollywood's focus on superheroes; my suggestion that she would make a good Catwoman leads to uncontrollable laughter. "Ah?! Me? I don't think so. Maybe in the comedy version."

'Thérèse Desqueyroux' is released on Friday; 'Mood Indigo' will be released later this year

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence