IT WAS 7.15pm and Louis, aged five and a half, was screaming. He had missed his favourite television programme. Dmitri, 11, was hanging around on the stairs waiting for help with his geometry homework. Their mother, Carole Bouquet, was ushering out the wardrobe consultant of her new film.

Dressed only in a long black cardigan, thigh-high boots and a pair of laddered tights, the face of Chanel No 5, cigarette in hand, was desperately trying to keep control. 'Leave Mummy alone for 20 minutes with this woman, will you, and then I promise that I'll help you with your homework. Run upstairs now, quickly, otherwise I will begin to get cross.'

The woman who has fronted the world's biggest-selling fragrance (with an annual turnover of pounds 66m) for the last seven years - a job previously occupied by Catherine Deneuve, Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen - relaxed back into the maroon sofa of a rented house in west London and adjusted her thick tortoiseshell spectacles. 'What a day]'

The next couple of weeks will be packed for Ms Bouquet, 35, who is staying in London until the beginning of April, preparing to shoot her new film. That day she had got up at 7am, fed the children, seen them off to the lycee and spent the rest of the morning with a voice coach, making strange noises in time to music.

The afternoon had been spent with a fitter flown over from Paris, organising her wardrobe for a new Chanel No 5 advertisement she is shooting there next week with Roman Polanski. 'I can't tell you anything about the new advert. They love secrets at Chanel,' she said.

Like Vanessa Paradis, the Coco girl, the face of Chanel smokes, drinks, has no work-out plan and emphatically denies that she is a model. 'I'm an actress. That's not a criticism of models, I'm just useless at it. I have tried it before and I can't walk down the catwalk, I'm far too scared. I find it hard when I have no lines to say.'

Ms Bouquet can't quite understand how she got the contract in the first place, and seems somewhat overwhelmed by her job. 'It's rather like being in a fairy-tale. I sit there in all the shows next to these extremely rich and famous ladies, ticking things off on the cards, and they are all haute couture. I feel rather like Cinderella. Maybe one day it will stop and I will become a pumpkin.'

Yet she uses her position to her advantage. 'Chanel is like a Robin Hood outfit. I put on the hat and the shoes when I feel like it.' The best thing about being the No 5 woman is that it gives her the financial freedom to turn down parts in bad films. Exactly how much she earns neither she nor Chanel will say.

Her latest film is Business Affair. 'It's about the relationship between two men and a woman. Both men are trying to stop her from living her own life, keeping her inside and stopping her from working,' said Ms Bouquet as her youngest son, dressed in his pyjamas, wandered into the room and sat on her knee. She fluffed up his hair and continued with talk about the film, saying that as it is on a tight seven- week schedule, they will rehearse in the morning and shoot in the afternoon.

Jennifer Patrick, the voice coach who helped Nastassja Kinski to develop a Dorset accent for Tess, is allowing Ms Bouquet to keep some of her accent, as she will play a French woman living in London. 'Well, I learnt my English in New York, which makes it even more difficult,' the actress laughed.

Ms Bouquet has made more than 10 films. The first, in 1977, was That Obscure Object of Desire by Luis Bunuel. It won an Oscar for the best foreign film. Other roles have included James Bond's girlfriend in For Your Eyes Only.

She won a Cesar in 1989 for best female actress at the Cannes Film Festival for Trop Belle Pour Toi] but has no plans to follow her co-star in that film, Gerard Depardieu, and go to Hollywood. 'There is a time in your life when you are older and you have to abandon things, including your dreams. I couldn't take my children there and I could not stay away for that long. Before when I went away I would take teachers for the children but now Dmitri is 11 I can't do that any more.'

Ms Bouquet views the No 5 image as part of a jigsaw puzzle that is more complete in France than anywhere else. 'People in France know me as someone else. I do theatre, films and charity work there, whereas abroad, although the image is strong, I now have to start adding things to the puzzle.'

She spends three weeks a year working for Chanel, doing photo shoots, promotional tours and shooting. 'The first ad I did I thought 'what a bore', compared to movies. But I had such fun spending 10 days in the desert with Ridley Scott. It was brilliant watching him play with the lights. You just can't do that in the movies, it's too expensive.'

Despite her beauty, Ms Bouquet doesn't take herself too seriously, and seems remarkably untouched by the foibles of the fashion world. 'I think that's my children. They are never impressed when they see my pictures, and having a husband who is an Aids doctor puts things back in proportion. I would rather be remembered as a good mother and, hopefully, grandmother than anything else.'

(Photograph omitted)