A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, written by Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant from the novel by Sébastien Japrisot, produced by Francis Boespflug and Jean-Louis Monthieux, with Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker and Tchéky Karyo. 134 minutes. A Warner Independent Pictures release. Opens Friday (December 17). Rating: NNN
Audrey Tautou draws a chic black camera from her purse at the end of the interview. "May I take a picture of you?" she cocks her head and asks. "I take a picture of all the journalists. It's for me, not for a book or anything."
I'm now collected, though no longer cool.
Tautou clearly hates interviews. She is unfailingly polite, and sometimes hilarious, but she sits slunk down in her chair the whole time, getting through questions on a shrug of her slight shoulders. She's rail-thin, her shoulders no wider than a wire hanger.
Taking photographs, it seems, makes it all bearable.
Life can't be easy when you're the poster girl for French passion. What's brought her to this bright hotel suite today is A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's epic of love in the face of war. But what brought her to the world, and perhaps to today's sleek glaze of frustration, is Amélie.
"Of course people know me because of this movie," she says when I degrade myself by asking her about it. "It's the most successful movie I've ever done. I can't expect them to know a movie they didn't see. It's more a mathematic thing."
A Very Long Engagment re-teams Tautou and Jeunet, who directed her in Amélie and crafted her image as the world's sexiest elf. Long Engagement unveils an earthier creation, Mathilde, who refuses to believe that the first-world-war soldier she loves is now dead, and so crosses France to find him.
It's a Titanic or Zhivago kind of love, and Tautou's alarmingly expressive face is just potent enough to fit its scale.
"I think people can know that love," she says tentatively, "but for me it's very rare, and for me (she trails off in a long pause ) it's, in a way, cinema."
In France, to call something "cinema" is to call it a glorious lie.
"But not more than in a romantic comedy," Tautou corrects herself. "That kind of love is more unreal than this one. To bear the disappearance of somebody and the doubt that comes with that, it's impossible."
Impossible is one of the great words in French. It can mean almost anything.
It can describe, for instance, the arc of French stars trying to project beyond French movies. With Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things behind her, and the global ambitions of A Very Long Engagement, Tautou is now having her Juliet Binoche moment. What films will take her worldwide? What films does she want to make?
"In fact," she says at last, "I know that I would not want to act in a horror movie."
Finally, she admits, "I know what I would not want to do, but I don't know what I want to do." Now I want to shrug.
What makes Tautou different from Binoche and so many other stars of sophisticated Parisian cinema is that Tautou is not actually from Paris.
She grew up in "the middle of France," she says, "Montluçon."
And that region is known for?
"Pffff," she says, and pauses. "It's known for communism."
In both Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet has expertly encouraged Tautou's peculiar blend of otherworldly grace and animal spontaneity.
She says she always thought of her character as "very modern, even though it's a period movie, because of her independence and strength. She's not comment dit, soumis?"
If Mathilde isn't submissive, Tautou continues, it's partly because women of 90 years ago matured faster, at least according to the old photographs and portraits she looked at.
"These women in pictures," she says, "they always look much older than their age, and I wanted to have that in the movie. Even if she's 20, I didn't want her to look as if she was a very young woman. I made her look older and closed, fermée."
It's the flip side, the mathematical opposite, of the freshness audiences loved about her in Amélie.
"I think that I'm fresher than cooked," she protests, "but I don't know what they are seeing in me. But I'm not a grandma, for sure."
A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT
Amélie star Audrey Tautou is back under Jeunet's wizard hand. But this is a darker story, following a country girl (Tautou) and her soldier lover torn apart by the first world war. Like Amélie and City Of Lost Children, this movie is beautiful, clever and full of imagination. The trench warfare scenes are stunning, and look suitably expensive. The problem remains, though. Jeunet's films are full of cinema but devoid of life. The emotions feel contrived and storybook, at least until Jodie Foster turns up for a stark cameo. Every frame of this film is painted like a graphic novel, but the story is a nail to hang the style on.