Audrey Tautou: Vive la différence
Since stumbling into the role of Amélie, Audrey Tautou has forged a singular career, one of the few resolutely Gallic film stars to become a global star. Her secret to success: ‘I always tried to follow my instincts
Audrey Tautou: ‘Fame is something that scares me more than it attracts me’
Out here in Anglophonia, we are wary of granting proper stardom to any actor who doesn’t speak the language. It can happen, of course. But to fully crossover you may need to fully embrace the Hollywood lifestyle. You need, in short, to become an honorary American.
Yet the English-speaking public has made an exception for a small number of French women. Brigitte Bardot managed it in the early 1960s. A few years later, Catherine Deneuve also made the crossover. In recent times, we can add Juliette Binoche and Audrey Tautou. Both have appeared in big US movies, but neither has shifted their base camp from the home republic.
Indeed, Tautou could hardly seem more French. Perched twitchily on a well-padded sofa, her eyes always eager to widen, she speaks in a fluent, but eccentric class of English that juggles American drawl with RP vowels.
“French people are not very good with English language,” she says without any apparent difficulty. “I have got better. I remember Stephen Frears telling me, after we had shot a film: ‘You have got better.’ I said: ‘I couldn’t get any worse.’ It’s true, maybe.”
There are a few odd noises in there. But her English really is pretty good. I bet it’s better than Stephen Frears’s French.
“Oh, it can be very frustrating,” she says. “You feel like a fool. You are aware that your answers are like those of a three-year-old.”
She shouldn’t worry. Tautou’s USP is a kind of charming, quirky awkwardness. Few actors can fall off low-lying walls with such accidental grace. It all came together for her in 2001 when Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie unexpectedly broke out of the arthouse ghetto and scared up mainstream business. Then 25, Tautou had appeared in just a few moderately successful French pictures when she (appropriately enough) staggered into the role.
“Everything changed. Of course,” she says. “It was all a huge surprise. I have a very special relationship to that film. But none of us could have imagined how universal that sentiment would be. I am still surprised how big it was. It had a sincerity, I think. But it was still strange.”
One of the oddest aspects to this story is that – despite being relentlessly Gallic throughout – the comic fantasy was originally written with a specific English actor in mind. Indeed, the title character’s name offers a phonetic nod to that star: Emily Watson. When Watson proved unavailable, Jeunet remembered a face he’d seen on the poster for Venus Beauty Institute, a recent romantic comedy, and brought young Tautou in for an audition.
Audiences relished the heightening of certain French flavours and the pointed oddness of the title character.
“I think it touched the very best of everybody,” she remembers. “It is not a question of culture or language or nationality. It shows universal fragility. It expresses doubts about how we can be ourselves. Yes, we chose Paris, because there is really something international in the love that people feel for it. And that film has been a great passport for me.”
Tautou was raised in central France, where dad worked as a dentist and mum served as a teacher. Sensible sorts, they made sure that, as well as taking acting lessons, their daughter studied for a degree in literature at the Sorbonne. When asked when she first realised acting was her vocation, she retreats into a forest of mutters and good-natured evasions. “Talking about myself is not my favourite thing,” she says.
Fair enough. But she must have some memory of how seriously she took acting in her years as a student.
“I had to reassure my parents and I had to reassure myself by doing what I really wanted,” she says. “So, yes, I did theatre school. And I would say this job took me from another life I could have had.”
Oh really. And what might that life have been?
“I have no idea,” she laughs. “But I wouldn’t have wanted a job to be my life if that job didn’t want me. Do you know what I mean?”
I think I do. At any rate, as she explained earlier, Amélie offered her a passport into the wider industry. Tautou admits that she was suddenly offered an array of bizarre and unsuitable international projects. It figures – just look at some of the US films that Deneuve and Bardot made during their pomp. When such breakthroughs occur, the industry often gets overcome with a panicky need to get the star into something – anything! – before the tarnish fades.
“Yes, but I always tried to follow my instincts and I never try to reach anything in particular,” she says. “I don’t think of my work in terms of career. I took the opportunities I felt would be interesting. I didn’t have any special plan.”
After Amélie, she worked with Stephen Frears on Dirty Pretty Things and, again for Jeunet, on the war drama A Very Long Engagement. Then, in 2006, she embarked on her first blockbuster with Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code. You may laugh. You probably should laugh. But the adaptation of Dan Brown’s dreadful conspiracy thriller made several fortunes and launched a peculiar franchise that hasn’t quite gone away yet. It premiered at Cannes. It caused critics to huff. It became the second-highest grossing release of 2006.
Was she prepared for it all?
“I don’t know. The budget? The expectation? There was such a . . . erm? Ferment? It’s a huge machine when you are in this type of movie, but when you are on set, it is the same. Nothing is different as an actor. Everything is bigger though. It was very interesting, but I don’t think I have the right profile for this kind of thing.”
Tautou won’t quite admit to consciously backing away from Hollywood, but, since helping that film to secure its riches, she has had nothing much to do with the dream factory. Over the past decade she has made only French films. She had a hit with Coco Before Chanel. Many critics liked her in the recent Thérèse D. Would she rule our a return to English-language pictures?
“I can’t say that,” she says. “It depends on the project. It’s not something I can really choose as an actor. But I am more concerned and interested in projects that have a personal vision – an independent spirit. The Da Vinci Code was a great experience. Fame is something that scares me more than it attracts me.”
Which brings us right up to date. Tautou is in London to promote two upcoming films. At the start of August, she appears in Michel Gondry’s characteristically crazy Mood Indigo. Next week, she turns up in Cédric Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle as one of four pals having adventures in hipper parts of New York City. Following on from Pot Luck and Russian Dolls, the picture is the third in a series of comic dramas charting the progress of the metrosexual chums as they face up to the century’s challenges. Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly and Cécile de France are also still on board.
Promoting two pictures? This is the part of the job they actually pay her for.
“I think so. You are right,” she laughs. “Well, maybe not. Because I am here promoting two films, it is schizophrenic. It is important for the films. But talking about yourself is not really an enriching experience.”
Well, talk about Michel Gondry then. The director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep is one of cinema’s great eccentrics. Few men are more delightfully odd in person. I assume he doesn’t modify behaviour on set.
“Ha ha! No, not at all,” she says. “The environment created in Michel’s brain is a real storm of ideas. He has no barrier to stop creating. He creates a big mess but he still knows where he wants to go.”
She’s no fool. The onscreen battiness emerges from a cautious mind that is focused on avoiding wrong turns and retaining control. It is more than 10 years since the team got together for Pot Luck. In that time, Tautou must have learned a lot, suffered a few blows and discovered new routes to recovery. I assume she and her pals chatted about how life had treated them.
“No. I don’t think about that so much,” she says. “My face may change but apart from that I don’t think so much about that. It’s as if I was refining an old friend playing this part. But I make no comparison with my own life.”
She’s a mysterious sort. But then so are Deneuve and Bardot. Maybe, it’s a French thing.