A lot of actors look diminutive in person, if only because they’re no longer staring down at you from a massive screen. French sensation Audrey Tautou, however, looks like she might just fit in your pocket. Meeting me in a suite at New York’s Soho Grand Hotel, the endearing star of Amélie and a string of other French-language films, from Priceless to A Very Long Engagement, is all but consumed by the high-backed, comfy-looking chair she’s curled up on. Tautou’s charisma has always involved the verve that can spring from that tiny frame, but such appeal is hardly exclusive to rom-coms and whimsy. Take Thérèse, Tautou’s latest film, in which she portrays the dark title character of François Mauriac’s classic novel Thérèse Desqueyroux, essentially France’s Anna Karenina. It’s a role with teeth, and Tautou channels into it the same amount of surprising energy that makes her conversely sprightly characters so watchable.
Thérèse is also the final film from late French director Claude Miller, a hero of Tautou’s whom she’d been aching to work with for more than a decade. Intermittently struggling with her English in a way that’s indescribably charming, Tautou explains that it’s not quite an honor to be at the head of this movie, since the project has become so bittersweet. But she also shares how she reveled in the complexity of a part unlike many she’s played before—one that involves a nasty dose of apathy, a whole lot of smoking, and the primal frustration of feeling like a caged animal. That’s right: Don’t let the pixie-ish presence fool you; Tautou has quite the wild streak.
From the viewer’s perspective, you seem to have a certain innate innocence—a sweetheart quality that’s followed you since your breakout role in Amélie. But in Thérèse, you do away with so much of that to play this woman who is, in many ways, very tragic. Do you find darker roles more challenging?
I don’t find darker roles more challenging, but I do find it challenging to play someone who’s very different from the parts I’ve played before. To play a criminal—a woman who’s so complex, and mysterious, and dry, and can show a very ugly [side of herself] was very interesting. And wonderful. I really like acting in comedy, and pleasing an audience in that way, but I also like parts that are a bit more extreme—radical. I really enjoy that.
I understand Claude Miller sent you Mauriac’s novel before the start of production. Had you had a lot of exposure to it prior to that?
No. Of course I knew of the story. It’s a very popular book in France, a classic. But I hadn’t read it, so I discovered this family, this spirit, these conventions, this period of Thérèse, because of the book that he sent me before writing the script.
And you have a bit of a history with Claude, in terms of trying to collaborate on projects that never really got off the ground.
Yes, yes. It’s been 10 years since we last tried to work together. We never made [anything] because of schedules, projects, you know. And this part, and this movie, was the one. I’ve always dreamed of working with Claude Miller, because I’m a big fan of his movies. He’s made movies that stay inside me—that go with me. They’ve stuck with me ever since I was younger. His movie L’Effrontée is one that’s very important for our generation in France, and there are many others that I really love.
And now you’re the vessel carrying his final film. That seems like it would be an honor.
Well, I can’t say it’s an honor, because I really, really wish I didn’t have to have this “honor.”
Right, of course.
For me, it is more something that’s sad. But what’s an honor is to be able to present this movie, because, for me, it’s very clever, and subtle, and beautiful. And Claude worked so hard on it, and gave all of his last strength to it, so I have a very special affection for it. Very special.
How do you see Thérèse as being different from other classic characters like her, like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary?
Well, I’m more familiar with Madame Bovary than Anna Karenina, but I think that all are about women who are not formed for a certain life, and who are trapped in a life they can’t bear, and who can’t project themselves. I would say that when you don’t wear the “good costume” in your life, it’s something I find very touching. You know what I mean? And I think it’s something that many people can relate to—the fact that you can spend your life in a life that you don’t like, or that you didn’t choose. And Thérèse, for me, is not a heroine. She’s really a regular human being, a regular woman, who does a crazy thing and becomes a criminal. Not because she was born a criminal, but simply because the circumstances drove her into the crime. And in that way, I think that she is not a special person. Very often, when you go to a trial, the victims, or the family, wants to know why. They want the reason why the criminal did that. And very often, they rely on the trial to obtain this answer, and most of the time they can’t get the answer, because the criminal himself doesn’t really know why. There is something, a mystery, about why a regular person can commit a crime, even if he’s not crazy. And I think, with Thérèse, the fact that it’s very difficult to understand her personal reasons makes her very…realistic and human. Does that make sense? I think you will understand if you listen to it 10 times. [Laughs]
Haha! Maybe just five. Also in the film, Thérèse eventually becomes very cold and distant in relation to everyone around her, from her husband to her child. Was it possible to relate to that characteristic at all?
No, because I’m too sensitive to ever have a lack of interest. Any situation, even if I hate something, I will feel it. I have too much emotion to feel cold, I think.