First Eric Cantona, now Audrey Tautou takes to the stage

French actors are migrating from the cinema as Parisian theatres recover from crisis-deflated 2009

She may never have played for Manchester United but she does now have something in common with Eric Cantona.

Audrey Tautou, the most successful and highest paid of a new generation of French cinema actresses, followed Le Grand Eric last week by becoming the latest of a series of high-profile transfers from the French screen to the stage.

Tautou, 33, who was projected to world stardom by her roles in Amélie (2000) and The Da Vinci Code (2006), has made her theatrical debut in Paris in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.

Audrey comfortably outscored Eric. Cantona received, at most, polite reviews last month for his gutsy, but sometimes inaudible performances, just off the Champs-Elysées, as a dying man trapped in the ruins of a supermarket. Tautou has received rave reviews for her performance as Nora Helmer, a young wife who tries to escape from the suffocation of a conventional, 19th-century bourgeois marriage. The theatre critic of Le Parisien said that she was "irresistible".

Both Cantona and Tautou are part of a wider emigration from French cinema to theatre, as the Paris stage tries to recover from a disappointing, crisis-deflated 2009. Another recruit has been the actress Isabelle Huppert, who is playing Blanche Dubois in Un Tramway, a loose interpretation of the Ten-nessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire.

In April, the British film director Sam Mendes will make his first excursion into French theatre when he directs two Shakespeare plays in Paris, The Tempest and As You Like It.

Audrey Tautou knew that she would be given no quarter by French theatre critics if she failed to make the leap on to the stage. "Everyone is waiting for me to fall on my face, but I don't care," she told the newspaper Le Figaro.

The role of Nora in A Doll's House might have been written for Tautou. In her cinema career, she has progressed from her early roles as a lovable, naive, fragile and comical young woman (such as Amélie). She made a much-praised appearance last year as a tortured and not always likeable Coco Chanel in a movie about the fashion designer's early life. For her performance in Coco Avant Chanel (Coco before Chanel), Tautou has been nominated for a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar.

In A Doll's House (written in 1879), her character, Nora, makes a similar progression from a childlike wife, patronised by her husband, to a tortured and would-be liberated adult woman. The production at the Théâtre de la Madeleine until 10 June, directed by Michel Fau, is played for laughs in the first half – somewhat unusually but with great success.

Le Parisien wrote: "Stuffed like a sweet into a sky-blue dress, wrapped around with a big bow, Audrey Tau-tou makes a perfect doll. She talks like a little girl, she lisps, she skips and overdoes the cheerfulness to play up to her husband... As the play progresses, her face becomes more serious, more adult, more that of a woman."

Tautou said that, as a girl, she had dreamed of appearing on the stage "but life led me in another direction".

"I was so spoiled by my cinema career for so long that I hardly dared to ask to go on stage."

Asked to describe the difference between the two forms of acting, she said: "In the cinema, I sink into my characters very quickly, which leaves you little chance to play around. In the theatre, it's the opposite. You start by playing with the role and, bit by bit, you feel close to your character.

"You build things, you try things, you rub them out again. It's scary but great fun."

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