She warmed us to the coeur as Amelie Poulain, but Audrey Tautou's latest role is a jealous, bitter woman who tries to get rid of her new husband. Stephen Milton wonders if the French actress would like to do the same to her interviewer...
Audrey Tautou takes a furtive look over her shoulder, scanning the room for danger, and leans in closer to me. She pauses and, after another quick furtive glance, whispers with an enticing Gallic purr: "Can I tell you a secret?"
She flashes a cute, slanted grin and shifts in her seat. "After this interview, I'm planning my escape. But I will need your help."
It seems the 'Amelie' beauty is working a restrictive schedule during this swift promo visit to London, which she is combining with preparations as the maitresse de ceremonie at this year's 66th Cannes Film Festival. She wants to escape the confines of the Sofitel St James, just off Pall Mall.
I, in turn, am being recruited as a blind-sighted accomplice.
"I bore to talk of myself," she sighs, playfully flopping her arms by her side. "I love coming to London but I wanted to do some shopping, go to see some exhibitions. I am on the Eurostar to Paris in a few hours.
"Unless you provide a distraction for me when we are finished? I can sneak out and see the city."
Keeping an eagle eye on proceedings, a sharp publicist loudly interjects: "Is Audrey plotting another great escape? If she flees, we'll hold you personally accountable."
"Ooh la la," Tautou cries, throwing her hands in the air in mock disgust, an endearing signature move she pulls several times throughout our interview.
"There are so many rules, so much restriction."
Like Marion Cotillard and Jean Dujardin, the pixie-sized artiste is of that elite circle of French actors who broke and ultimately conquered Hollywood.
From the moment she enchanted audiences around the world with her beguiling doe-eyed gaze in 'Amelie,' a star was born.
Raised in the rural Auvergne region, she studied literature at the Sorbonne – "as a back-up, in case this 'acting thing', as my parents called it, didn't work out". The fledgling young actress enjoyed minor celebrity status in France before Jean-Pierre Jeunet's multi-Oscar nominated, heart-warming tale of a wonderfully innocent Parisienne who brings joy to the streets of Montmartre, changed everything.
At just 25, Tautou was unnerved, rather than appreciative of the sudden attention.
"I found it weird that suddenly I was being stared at," she animatedly explains, though periodically seeking grammatical reassurance from her assistant.
"I remember how I felt, 'Oh something happened', and it was a few days after 'Amelie' had released in France. I was in the queue in an airport and looking at a check-in hostess and she was really, you know, not in a good spirit. Disagreeable!
"And I was thinking, 'Oh, change your work if you don't like it'. Very rude to people ahead of me and suddenly it was my turn. She had her head in the papers and when she looked up, her face was suddenly full of joy and sun with an amazing smile, and instead of thinking, 'Wow that's cool', I thought, 'Wow that's weird'."
Looking chic in black drainpipe cut-offs, pumps and a ruched fitted black jacket – all Chanel, naturally, for the former face of the revered fashion house – the star surfed a sea of adulation as Hollywood's new It Girl.
She initially embraced her powerful new status. Landing the role of Sophie Neveu opposite Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon in 'The Da Vinci Code', and reportedly just edged out by Eva Green as the Bond Girl Vesper Lynd in 'Casino Royale', Audrey was in hot demand.
This success, however, didn't sit well and she ultimately turned her back on the big-money offers.
"To do a career in Hollywood, you have to have the good spirit for that," she says. "You have to move there and you have to work a lot for it, and I think that it is much more difficult for a foreign actor, especially a French-speaking actor, to get great parts in Hollywood.
"There are amazing roles and amazing directors, but to do something other than the 'girlfriend', it's very difficult. It's work that I didn't want to do."
Tautou continues: "Being in the centre of this huge spotlight, it's not something that excites me that much. What's good today is that you can be forgotten very quickly and that's very reassuring."
Surely that's every actor's nightmare?
"For some," she coolly replies, "but I take comfort knowing this attention will disappear after a week or so."
So working with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks clearly leaves an indelible mark then? "Ron was easily one of the kindest, most beautiful directors to work with and Tom Hanks, he is just a lovely man, no attitude," she says.
"It was nothing to do with working on 'Da Vinci [Code]'. I was so happy to get this opportunity.
"It was the attitude of Los Angeles that left its mark. And I'm not the first. It looks like the dream, but Hollywood is not for everyone."
Comfortable with European cinema, Tautou, who is in a relationship with musician Matthieu Chedid, has carefully hand-picked her projects.
From Jeunet's 'A Very Long Engagement' to Stephen Frears' 'Dirty Pretty Things', she charmed the fashion industry with her stunning portrayal of the iconic designer in 'Coco Before Chanel', resulting in a job as the face of Chanel No 5.
Tautou's latest offering is 'Therese Desqueyroux', a reworking of the Francois Mauriac classic about a spirited, jealous woman who's suffocated by her overbearing family and new husband, and who turns homicidal to escape her personal hell.
A world away from the whimsical adventures of Amelie Poulain, she exercises a remarkable versatility as Therese, a cold, impenetrable woman.
"I was very moved by the hidden revolt that Therese feels," she says. "I'm very moved by the fact that she can't escape from this wedding, and the family pressure is so huge that she prefers trying to poison her husband more than asking for a divorce.
"When society or the universe manages to make you shut up, and manages to drive your life, I think that's something very scary for me."
The film was the last for renowned French film director Claude Miller, who passed away shortly after 'Therese' was screened at Cannes last year. Tautou speaks of him with poignancy.
"This movie kept Claude alive until everything was done. It was incredible and as soon as he knew everything was okay, everything was locked and the movie would be screening in Cannes, he passed away," she says.
"It's a special situation, very painful but also with this feeling, the special responsibility of taking care of this movie.
"For once, I want to meet journalists, I want to offer myself to promote 'Therese'. It's bigger than me or any one person involved."
As she talks, it's clear that Tautou is uncomfortable in my presence.
Smiling faintly, offering cheeky winks to ease the tension, she's rarely been burnt by the press, although one misquote left a lasting impression.
Two years ago, in an article with a British broadsheet, Tautou (34) 'claimed' she was quitting acting for good. For the star, it was an important lesson learned
"Ooh la la," she cries, "I never said that. It's amazing how a false rumour can grow because everybody, from every country, now asks that.
"At the beginning, I thought it was a joke so I didn't pay any attention to that. And when my sister called me, saying, 'Audrey, you want to quit acting and you didn't tell me?'
"And Pierre Salvadori, the director who I was about to work with on my next film, 'Beautiful Lies', says, 'Audrey, you want to quit acting, what am I going to do?'"
She pauses, staring past my ear for a beat. "Okay, I may be responsible for a certain confusion, as I don't work three movies per year as I have other interests in life. I'm not an actress 24 hours a day. I think that's how this rumour could seem true, but I will never quit acting," she says.
"And it scares me now when I do an interview, what other false rumours will grow? I like to, how do you say... choose my words carefully now."
As our eagle-eared publicist curtly calls time on our conversation, she wistfully groans, "How many more of these do we have to do?"
"Just a few more hours, then we have Jonathan Ross."
"He'll definitely help you with your escape plan," I add, as I gather myself to make my own exit. Audrey gives me a withering look and returns her gaze towards an open window.
'Therese Desqueyroux' is in cinemas June 6