In her new film, the French treasure embraces her dark side.

When Audrey Tautou attended last year's Cannes Film Festival she was taking on a new responsibility. As the titular star of the festival's closing film, Thérèse Desqueyroux, she had to present the film in the absence of her director, Claude Miller, who had passed away. Now she is flitting over to the U.S., attending a Q&A in the UK and even doing unheard of telephone interviews for Australia. She had long wanted to work with Miller, who had mostly focused on women's stories and Thérèse Desqueyroux is no exception.

I didn’t know if I would be tough enough for the part.

“I know that Claude was fighting against the cancer and there was no way this was going to be his last movie,” she says of the director who died aged 70 in April 2012 and who in his youth worked with Robert Bresson and considered François Truffaut a mentor. “For me, I would never have imagined that the things would go so quickly. Of course, it was a serious sickness and Claude had heavy therapy while we were shooting but there was something very happy about the shoot. He never complained and never made us support the weight of his sickness and we were very impressed by that. He was just happy to be there concentrating on his movie and you could feel he had the whole life of cinema and experience behind him.”

This upbeat attitude might parallel the Tautou we have come to know in so many of her movies, most famously Amélie. Yet in Thérèse Desqueyroux, which was originally filmed by Georges Franju in 1962 starring Amour's Emmanuelle Riva (who won the 1962 best actress prize in Venice), Tautou is delving into the dark side for the first time.

The film is based on a 1927 novel by François Mauriac, whose take on class and feminism was a contemporary issue, as it still was when Franju's film was made. Miller now presents more of a high art French period drama with all the beauty that entails, from interior décor to the stunning nature and architecture around Bordeaux. He has also humanised Bernard, Thérèse's brutish husband, played by Gilles Lellouche. Still in France, where Lellouche is known for comedies, the film also marks a surprisingly staunch turn from the actor who is the best friend and frequent co-star of Jean Dujardin.

In Cannes where I meet Tautou in her finery as she is about to attend the festival's closing ceremony, she admits she is nervous, with so much resting on her petite shoulders.

“I'm not very confident, especially when it comes to standing on front of a crowd,” she says. The 36-year-old was not particularly confident either when it came to playing Thérèse.

Thérèse Larroque is a practical young woman who can see that an arranged marriage with her neighbour Bernard Desqueyroux will be good for her family. After having a daughter, she feels no strong maternal instinct, though is greatly influenced by her sister-in-law's intellectual, free-thinking boyfriend, Jean (Stanley Weber). When Jean returns to Paris, Thérèse feels trapped in a loveless marriage and in her boredom notices that her hypochondriac husband is accidentally taking too much Fowler's Solution, a medicine containing arsenic. She can't resist helping him take some more.

Tautou first came in contact with the character when Miller sent her Mauriac's novel. They'd been wanting to work together for some time. “Claude asked me to read the book before writing the screenplay to see if I'd be interested in this story and the character,” she recalls. “I was, but I hadn't seen Franju's movie and I wanted to see it, maybe because I was a little scared by Thérèse and I wanted to get some ideas. But I couldn't find it, even on DVD. Afterwards I realised I shouldn't have watched it because I could have been influenced and I didn't want that.

“I immediately knew it was a very new register Claude was proposing me,” she continues, ”and I didn't know if I'd be able to get rid of this kind of sweetness that I usually have in my characters and I think is part of my nature. It isn't something I calculate when I'm acting but I didn't know if I would be tough enough for the part and if I would be able to express ugly feelings like jealousy, pride and desire and attempt to destroy another person. I had to try to find the ugliest side of human nature––even if I don't think she's a monster at all, but just to express that side of her personality.”

Ultimately, Tautou didn't suffer because Thérèse doesn't either.

“She's someone who doesn't complain about herself, who doesn't feel sorry for herself at all. She's disturbed with all the questions, with this chaos that surrounds her, but never positions herself as a victim. She's just become indifferent to life.”

Tautou welcomed the role as she maintains she is becoming too old to play the ingénue. Yet she still does sweetness so well, if the new images from Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo are any indication. The film is based on Boris Vian's cult French novel.

“It's a very surrealistic story and there's really no common point with Thérèse Desqueyroux,” Tautou says with a smile.

She has recently also re-teamed with director Cedric Klapisch for Chinese Puzzle, a third instalment after The Spanish Apartment (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005). She co-stars in both films with the equally cute Romain Duris. “He's fun to work with,” she says.

In her 13-year career, Tautou has made three English-language films: 2002's Dirty Pretty Things, directed by Britain's Stephen Frears, 2003's Happy End, directed by Israeli New Yorker Amos Kollek (then a big deal in France), and her sole US blockbuster 2006's The Da Vince Code, directed by Ron Howard.

“It wasn't an obvious decision because I was chosen,” she says of the latter. “I agreed to do the audition but I didn't expect it to be such a huge thing. I'm very pleased to have had this experience, but I don't think I fit into this huge kind of production. I love making films in France and I don't want to become more famous than I am. It's also a lot of work for those international roles, because obviously being French I will probably always have to play a French person which is limiting.”

The eldest of four children, Tautou was born in Beaumont, and raised in Montluçon by a dentist father and teacher mother. As a teenager she had fixed her mind on becoming a professional actress and headed for Paris to study shortly after her high school graduation. She did not have to wait long as she was cast in the 1996 television movie Coeur de cible. In 2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet chose her as a last-minute replacement in Amélie (after Emily Watson dropped out) and the movie propelled her to international stardom. The role of a naïve young woman determined to help others seemed to fit her like a glove. She has since forged a career playing strong-willed solitary eccentrics.

“I think it's maybe because I'm like that,” Tautou says. “I love being by myself.”

She also likes re-teaming with directors, a habit which began with Jeunet. In his 2004 big budget drama, A Very Long Engagement, she played a young woman searching for her fiancé who might have been killed during the Battle of the Somme. In 1996 she made Pierre Salvadori's Priceless, a hit French comedy with beautiful clothes where critics hailed her as the French Audrey Hepburn.

“I discovered a sensuality and femininity in all the dresses and the clothes,” she says. “I also discovered a level of seduction that I had never known in my life before.”

She was then ready for the acid test, to play the ultimate French fashion icon, Coco Chanel, in Coco avant Chanel, directed by Anne Fontaine. (Fontaine did a far better job than in her recent Australian venture Two Mothers.) The 2009 film came right at the moment when Tautou had something to prove. She wanted to be taken seriously and to be given more mature parts. In many ways, the role allowed her to go on and play Thérèse Desqueyroux.

“I find it necessary and revitalising to work in dramatic movies, and it's true that I today no longer accept the same kinds of roles as before. Certain roles I'm too old for now. It's an interesting moment as it permits me to have more complex characters.”

Thérèse Desqueyroux opens in limited release on April 11.