If there's a theme that has recurred in her conversation over the years, I suggest to Carole Bouquet, it is that life can be a swine when you're lovely. "And every time you're reported as mentioning that," I tell the actress, "I find myself thinking: OK. Beautiful is hard. So try plain. Try hideous. Try one-armed."
"I don't think I ever made that remark in the way that you're suggesting. I don't think I was quoted correctly."
"So how old were you when you noticed that you were – to borrow the phrase that Gérard Depardieu addresses to you in Bertrand Blier's 1979 classic, Buffet Froid – 'staggeringly beautiful?"'
The former face of Chanel lowers first her eyes, then her voice. "I didn't write those words."
Bouquet, now 50, is one of France's more reluctant icons. She has had reason to be grateful for her nation's stringent privacy laws: never more so than in the immediate aftermath of her eight-year relationship with Depardieu, which ended in 2005. We're talking over lunch at her regular table in the Paris Ritz, where she arrived a couple of minutes early, wearing an elegant but understated dark sweater.
"Is it Chanel?"
"No. This," she replies, "is... a pullover. And these," she adds helpfully, "are a pair of brown trousers."
She's often assumed to be tall, possibly because of her years in modelling, where, as tradition requires, she generally seems to be looking down at you with a kind of smouldering disdain; actually she can be no more than 5ft 6in. But in her modest outfit, and a pair of round-rimmed spectacles, Bouquet still turns every head in the room.
It has taken her a while to become accustomed to such attention. As a young girl, she says, "What bothers you isn't so much whether you're beautiful or not. What bothers you is the way that people stare."
"So that dislocates your normal relationship with the world?"
"Exactly. You get stared at the whole time. I first noticed that when I was about 13. I was very shy. Being considered beautiful, I always felt that people were waiting for something more. I imagined you were supposed to have an intellectual ability – and I'm making no claims here – proportional to your supposed good looks. I think that's what I meant when I was talking about beauty. I felt I should be proving I deserved the attention; that I should be doing something special."
If remarkable achievement was what they expected of her, even the teenage Bouquet's most hopeful admirers must have been surprised at quite how spectacularly she has delivered. A former philosophy student at the Sorbonne, she made her screen debut at 18, in Luis Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, before blossoming as an actress under the tutelage of Depardieu's mentor and French cinema's dark genius, Bertrand Blier. Buffet Froid ends with Bouquet face to face with Depardieu, in a rowing boat. He asks her if she'll allow him to dedicate his life to her; she shoots him with a small-calibre handgun. In Blier's Trop Belle Pour Toi (Too Beautiful For You) she plays Depardieu's wife; the film's conceit is that he abandons Bouquet for his considerably rounder secretary, played by Josiane Balasko. There are moments in these scripts when art seems to anticipate life.
"When I was working with Gérard," Bouquet says, "he was married. I never wanted to steal him. The idea never occurred to me." She speaks in quietly articulated, very un-actorish French, occasionally delivering a phrase in English. It's one of the sadnesses of her career that her greatest roles, such as her interpretation of Resistance heroine Lucie Aubrac, in Claude Berri's 1997 film of the same name, received little or no distribution in North America or the UK. In Britain, she's still best known for a fleeting appearance in Francis Ford Coppola's contribution to New York Stories, and as Roger Moore's companion in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. ("No fun," says Bouquet.)
Since then, Bouquet, unlike her most famous ex-lover, has been highly discriminating in the roles she has accepted. "The first time I met Depardieu, in the late 1980s," I tell her, "he said, and I quote him precisely, that: 'I will never, ever, make crap films for money.' Have you seen him in Bimboland?"
"I'd love to make a Buffet Froid or a Lucie Aubrac every year. But we all make mistakes. Sometimes in life you need money and you make choices which are, er..."
Depardieu – the greatest French actor of his, or, some of us would argue, any other generation – has somehow turned into a man who could get recognised on any street corner in the world, so long as he was wearing his Obélix costume. Bouquet is currently playing, to glowing reviews, in Racine's tragedy Bérénice at the small but prestigious Parisian theatre Les Bouffes du Nord, famous as the adopted home of British director Peter Brook. But it's not her stage work that has had her on the front page of every French newspaper over the past few months.
"The whole thing happened by accident," she says. "I'd come back to Paris from New York, last October. I was jet-lagged. I had dinner at a restaurant. I was walking home around midnight, and I passed the Rue de la Banque, near the stock exchange. I saw 100 or so women there, with children." She pauses. "I didn't stop. I kept walking."
A minute later, she recalls: "I thought – hang on, what am I doing? I turned round and walked back. I asked the people camped out on the pavement: 'Why are you here?' They explained they were French workers; people who'd been enduring unhealthy, cramped conditions, in premises rented out by people we call 'sleep peddlers': landlords who are paid insane sums by the state."
"And these people recognised you?"
"Most of them."
Bouquet spoke to them for "an hour, maybe two. I came back the next day. Then I called La Voix de L'Enfant [Voice of the Child: the anti-abuse charity she established 22 years ago] to see what we could do. I think," she adds, "it was because I didn't stop immediately that I asked myself certain questions, such as: Carole, what the hell do you think you're playing at? And once you do stop, what do you say? 'Yes, I do know people of influence, but you can stay here and sort yourselves out; bye then?'"
The camp in the Rue de la Banque was established on 3 October 2007 by 50 women demanding decent housing. The settlement was cleared four times by police: at its height, last November, it comprised 100 red tents, some sponsored by Bouquet and friends such as Depardieu and Balasko.
The dispute was resolved before Christmas, after a meeting between Bouquet, a spokesman for the displaced families and President Sarkozy. The government agreed to rehouse 374 families who took part in the protest, using council accommodation and initiatives "modelled" Bouquet tells me, "on British housing associations. You wouldn't believe it..." she laughs, "...but I met people living on the Rue de la Banque who were working in ministerial offices." Many celebrities supported the campaign, but Bouquet led the charge and brokered the deal with the President. She is now working with a government commission to improve social housing in France.
"Africa," I suggest, "is the perfect destination for a well-meaning celebrity, because the moment they arrive, several time zones away from their swimming pools, servants and limos, they are no richer, in the eyes of a child on the street, than any other Westerner. But once you engage with the poor on your doorstep, the gulf in your respective lifestyles opens you to all manner of charges of hypocrisy."
"That's true," she says, "but if you think like that you'd never do anything. I've run my children's charity for over two decades, so I came to this with an awareness of how you get things done. When it comes to political rhetoric I don't give a sh..." Bouquet pauses. "Political debate is of no interest to me. What I want are practical solutions."
Bouquet's personal contact with Sarkozy – she was reported as having been seen dining with him near the Champs Élysées – led, given the President's reputation as a man with an intermittent and tenuous command of his libido, to predictable gossip among media figures in the capital. This allegation draws no comment from her.
The Rue de la Banque affair isn't her first confrontation with the political establishment. Her phone was tapped for over a year on the orders of François Mitterrand: an intrusion that persuaded some observers that the late president was sexually obsessed with her. The authorities admitted monitoring her calls at a public inquiry in January 2005, 20 years after the event. When she walked into the hearing, General Charroy, a ministerial representative, looked at Bouquet and was heard to whisper: "She looks like trouble."
Carole Bouquet was born into a middle-class family in Neuilly, an affluent suburb of Paris. When she was three, her mother returned to her native village near Toulon. Bouquet and her older sister were raised by their father Robert, an aeronautical engineer. The girls saw their mother in the holidays. "It alters you," she says, "when you're brought up by a man. When your mum isn't there, you miss something. You lack something. [This idea of a lack – une manque – crops up repeatedly in her conversation.] At least, that's how it was for me."
"Did you find yourself asking: 'Why didn't my mother want me?'"
"I did, but my father fought hard for custody. She didn't dare oppose his authority."
"So she wanted to keep you?"
Bouquet's mother now lives in Aix en Provence. The actress remembers her father, who died in the early 1980s, as a disciplinarian who wasn't a great conversationalist.
"You're being raised by a man who says very little," adds Bouquet, diving for the anonymity of the second-person pronoun, "and who you can't talk to about your intimate life. A man can't pass on, like a mother could, an awareness of your body, or sensuality, or what it means to be a woman. I was never taught what femininity was. I learnt it – or rather I invented it – on my own. I tended not to talk at all, if people were staring at me. I started talking [socially] very late; when I was 25 or so. Before that, I said nothing."
"That must have scared the daylights out of a lot of Parisian youths."
"I suppose it did. Shy people are taken to be aloof."
There were few mirrors in the house, and Bouquet says that, even after she'd begun making films, she avoided telling anyone she was going to the hairdresser's, which she saw as an act of vanity. At 15, she took a pair of scissors to her face. "I tried to stop people looking at me by hurting myself. I gave myself scars; then they looked at me twice as much because they thought I was crazy."
Three years ago, she gave an interview to a French psychological journal in which she was asked whether her work with abused children was a way of healing wounds from her own childhood. "No," she replied. "And yet, because of the extreme unhappiness I experienced, I'm not blind to the suffering of children. I see it all too clearly. I think that's why I'm some use."
She passed her baccalauréat early, having completed most of her studies at a boarding school run by Dominican nuns. She was expelled from four schools.
"Talking back. Even the nuns kicked me out."
She lasted a matter of days on her philosophy course at the Sorbonne, enrolling instead at the Conservatoire d'Art Dramatique, the French equivalent of Rada. She was still a student when she was stopped in the street and offered a screen test for That Obscure Object of Desire: her role as a glacial, enigmatic beauty established a stereotype it would take her years to escape.
"I kept asking myself, why do I deserve this part? I wasn't arrogant enough to believe that it was my extraordinary ability." Bouquet suffered from hyperventilation, related to panic. "Because of pressure on the set?"
"No. It was usually something straightforward."
"Private? You mean private like heroin? Bank robberies? Firearms?"
"It was life. Everyday things. Disappointment in love. My personality is addictive on every level, so my relationship with the world isn't exactly harmonious."
"Addictive in terms of what? Alcohol? Tobacco?"
"I don't smoke any more and I don't drink... but yes... I might look like someone who's supremely rational and composed, but I am not. At all."
Where her use of stimulants is concerned, she says, "I never went overboard. I had children. I had to work."
She has spoken about resorting to what she describes only as "drugs" to help her through the death of her father, who developed cancer when she was 20.
"Drugs helped me get up in the morning and look after him when he was terribly ill. When I noticed I was becoming dependent, I dealt with that problem as fast as possible." It's certain that the demure image Bouquet has acquired is scarcely consistent with her tormented youth, her sometimes reckless social life and, especially, her choice of men.
After working with Buñuel, she went to New York to make a movie called Blank Generation, in which she starred with punk star Richard Hell, remembered by music fans of a certain age for a 1977 single called "Love Comes in Spurts". Blank Generation is frankly dire, even if it does offer early proof of Bouquet's effortlessly natural presence on camera: otherwise, it's noteworthy only for a strangely hypnotic scene in which she sits at Andy Warhol's feet, exchanging banalities.
Through Warhol she met Warren Beatty, Lauren Bacall and Jackie Onassis. It was, as Bouquet describes it, "like being a queen. Andy Warhol protected me. He was a gentleman."
Back in Paris, she encountered her first great love, the Lebanese-born film producer Jean-Pierre Rassam, a man who embraced hedonism with an almost Anglo-Saxon zeal.
"I met Jean-Pierre in an office, with Jean-Luc Godard," she says. "He made me laugh. I just wanted to listen to him talk – to the point that I agreed to go out to dinner with him. I went, but he never turned up."
That Jean-Pierre Rassam, who died of a barbiturate overdose aged 43, in 1985, had a unique and original talent has never been in question. His productions included La Grande Bouffe (Blow-Out), Marco Ferreri's 1973 film about a group of friends who eat themselves to death, and Roland Polanski's Tess. His work was gradually overshadowed by an aberrant lifestyle which Mathias Rubin attempted to capture in his highly readable 2007 biography, Rassam the Magnificent.
Rubin describes how Rassam arrived at the Plaza Athénée – among the most ostentatiously expensive hotels in Paris – one day in 1972. He checked in to suite 321 and stayed for three years, pursuing a life brazenly enlivened by drink and prostitutes. It was Bouquet's connection with Rassam, and his Middle Eastern background, rather than Mitterrand's lust, that resulted in Bouquet's phone calls being intercepted.
Rubin notes that Rassam's daily intake of alcohol could run to several litres of whisky and brandy as well as "two or three" bottles of wine. At one point, Rassam's mother dispatched Gérard Brach, Polanski's scriptwriter, to Paris, with orders to stop her son drinking.
"I went out to a restaurant with Jean-Pierre," Brach recalls. "He ordered a bottle of Bordeaux. Over lunch, I delivered my increasingly incoherent sermon on the pernicious influence of alcohol on cinema production. He thought it was an idea for a script." As the afternoon wore on, Brach continues, "I lost all recollection of my mission and instead applied my energies to getting paralytic, holding forth on a wide range of increasingly thirst-inducing subjects. Rassam carried me back to my hotel."
When Rassam was living at the Plaza Athénée – where he would hang out with Coppola, Serge Gainsbourg and a qualified doctor who doubled as his drug dealer – he once opened the window of his room, which overlooked the restaurant in the internal courtyard, and showered diners with hundreds of items of women's underwear. When they complained, he pointed out that his own bill for the evening, in food, drink and damages, exceeded the restaurant's takings.
As is often the case with dead bohemians, other realities of Rassam's life are less lighthearted. One lover, Annie, had killed herself in 1967. "Women," he once complained. "With most of them, it's: 'Where the hell were you, can't you spend one evening with me, blah blah blah...' I don't need a mother."
Rassam is the man Bouquet has referred to as "the love of my life".
Her name doesn't appear on the acknowledgments page of Rubin's book. "No. Knowing Jean-Pierre Rassam was one of the wonderful experiences in my life. Nothing I could say could do it justice. Those memories belong to me. They are my treasure. And they changed my life. Just like real treasure."
She moved in with Rassam in the early 1980s, by which time the producer, who had renounced heroin but was still taking pills by the handful, found his career was beginning to disintegrate. Bouquet nursed him, funded him and, in 1982, had his son, Dmitri, who now has his own production company.
Rassam told a friend that Bouquet was "my guardian angel. She is a saint, but she doesn't know it."
There remains some doubt as to whether Rassam took an accidental overdose, or committed suicide. "You were living in a separate apartment when Rassam died?"
"I lived very close by; I'd moved out because the rhythm of his life wasn't compatible with my working, and bringing up a child." Bouquet didn't learn of his death for several hours, because she was out with Dmitri. "This was before mobile phones. It was indescribable. And then I did something crazy, which was not to talk to my son about the death of his father. I didn't take him to the funeral. He was only three. I just couldn't do it. A year later, my son, at his friend's birthday party, screamed: 'I want my daddy!' That's when it dawned on me; I asked myself: what have I done?"
Following Rassam's death, Bouquet lived with the photographer Francis Giacobetti; the Corsican, 18 years her senior, is the father of her second son, Louis, born in 1988. In 1992, she married immunologist Jacques Liebowitch; they divorced in 1996. She began her liaison with Depardieu in November 1996.
Bouquet has said that it took her 20 years to get over Rassam's death. She once gave an interview in the course of which, the reporter stated, Bouquet appeared accidentally to refer to Rassam by the name "Gérard" on five occasions.
During the time he was with Bouquet, Depardieu crashed his motorbike at 90mph with almost five times the legal level of alcohol in his blood and – in July 2000 – had a six-hour heart bypass operation which saved his life. It was the actress who persuaded him to have his chest pain checked out in hospital. It wasn't long before he was spotted with a Gitane back in his hand. Meanwhile, his son, Guillaume, was completing an autobiography that would castigate his father for, among other things, cocaine and alcohol abuse.
"Would you say that, in recent years, Depardieu has been destroying himself in public?"
"Sometimes. Not all of the time. It has to do with his inability to deal with everyday life; a kind of insatiability."
"And where does that originate?"
"From the moment when you discover you have achieved your dream. And realised that your dream isn't enough. There is something... lacking."
In the mid-1990s, I tell Bouquet, I had lunch with the late actor Jean Carmet, Depardieu's closest friend, and co-star in many films including Germinal and Buffet Froid, in which Carmet, perhaps the most underrated French actor of all time, played a serial killer too frightened to walk home alone after dark. He told me he wasn't sleeping, and drank water, which was not like him. We talked, among other things, about an open letter Depardieu had written to him in his 1988 collection Lettres Volées (Stolen Letters).
"Plane crashes, massacres and pogroms," Depardieu wrote, "you will survive them all. I picture you strolling around a battlefield like a tourist might wander the square in front of Notre Dame. If there's one man I will never worry myself over, it's you. You are indestructible."
Three weeks later, Carmet was dead. The sense of invulnerability invoked by Depardieu in that letter seems somehow to have been projected on to his own life; it's as though the star of Cyrano de Bergerac thinks he's untouchable.
"Yes," says Bouquet.
"But he isn't."
"Did you never try to, er..."
"You can't do anything," she replies. "This is, at the same time, Gérard's greatest strength and greatest weakness. I say weakness; he's almost 60 and he's still with us. And this is an indication of his phenomenal strength – the belief that he is indestructible. And the way he sincerely believes that he is protected by heaven knows what, when he climbs on his bike, way over the limit. Recklessness gives him his strength."
"It's hard to imagine you living with people with such a brazen taste for excess."
"It's all I like," she says. She repeats the phrase, with absolutely no irony. "C'est tout ce que j'aime. C'est tout ce que j'aime. C'est tout ce que j'aime. I love people who have that vital life force."
"Bertrand Blier once told me, speaking about Depardieu: 'Even now, now that he's rich and successful; when he knocks at my door, I catch myself thinking: oh shit, where have I hidden the valuables?'"
"You only have to look at Gérard, physically, to understand certain aspects of his character. These men we've been talking about; they are ogres. Their appetites are rarely satisfied. Life doesn't satisfy them. Excess barely satisfies them. The moment they triumph, triumph loses all meaning."
Towards the end of Depardieu's relationship with Bouquet, he was publicly linked with the actress Fanny Ardant. ("Fanny is a friend," the actor said at the time. "Carole is the love of my life.") At the ceremony for the Césars, or French Oscars, in 2004, Depardieu joined his daughter Julie on stage as she received an award from Ardant. All agreed he was in a state of heightened emotion or, to quote one reviewer, "plastered".
"You've talked about how private a person you are," I suggest to Bouquet. "When you separated from Depardieu, he led you into precisely the areas of the press that you've spent most of your life avoiding."
"That's true, but when I was with him it was the same. I'm not totally naive. I knew that, living with Gérard, those reports were going to appear."
Bouquet concedes that things have been somewhat calmer since Depardieu left her life. (He was last reported to be seeing a young woman oenologist who works in one of his vineyards.) She has a fiancé, she confides, reluctantly, just as we're leaving the bar, and he's from Italy. She owns land on the island of Pantellaria, south west of Sicily, where she produces her fine white wine, Sanguo d'oro. Italy, she says, is her comfort and her refuge. Just the word makes her smile.
The question of whether the apparent tranquillity in her life turns out to be permanent is an interesting one. She admits to a continuing fascination "with people who have exercised great power, then lost it. I find them compelling. Because when people are struggling to succeed and you see their narcissism in full flow, they are really unattractive. And you know that, sooner or later, it's all going to implode."
That evening, I watch her at the Bouffes du Nord, delivering a flawless performance as Bérénice: a highly demanding role, in that the play has virtually no action and requires an actress who can captivate an audience while she gets dumped with dignity in 1,506 lines. She filmed Bérénice with Depardieu; watching her on stage, I'm reminded of a remark he once made, namely that a great actor is like Jesus: "the more intense the agony they've suffered, the greater the work".
She's out of make-up and talking in the theatre bar within 15 minutes. "Memory," she says, "is just another muscle. You have to keep it in shape. That's reason enough to keep acting in the theatre." After tonight – her last performance as Bérénice – she's preparing for her next engagements: two film comedies, a meeting with the commission for the homeless, and an engagement with a French pressure group working for human rights in China, ahead of the Olympic Games. Listening to her talk, you can't help but be impressed by her restless enthusiasm for future commitments: though it's hard to believe that any of them – in cinema, love or politics – will ever rival the terrible intensity of the ones she's left behind.