Audrey Tautou is not to be messed with. On an overcast Parisian winter afternoon, the actress best known for her role as the eponymous ingénue in Amélie is not in the sunniest of moods. Halfway through our interview, she walks out to chastise the PRs who are chattering noisily outside the hotel room where we are discussing her latest film, A Very Long Engagement. She may look like a china doll, but she could sink a battleship with the firepower that blazes in those limpid saucersized eyes.'All the boys I have known say that I can be a pain!' she admits. 'I have a very strong character and just because I'm a woman, it doesn't mean I'm going to do what the man wants.'Dressed in faded blue cords with turn-ups, a white vest and a pink and brown jumper, spun from a fabric as fragile as her stick-thin arms, she spends much of our time together fiddling with her leather bag. It's evident the publicity process still unsettles her. But to be fair, this is a stressful time for the 26-year-old. A Very Long Engagement reunites her with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who three years ago turned her into a star as the do-gooder Amélie. As the film became a multi-Oscarnominated phenomenon, earning more than $100 million (£55 million) worldwide, Tautou was automatically compared to her namesake, Hepburn, and her elfin face, with its boyish bobbed cut, shone from billboards and bus-shelters all over the world.
Overnight, simple things like eating out in Paris, the city she now calls home, became impossible. Tautou dined with President Chirac and was nominated in the Best Actress categories at the César and BAFTA film awards.
'I was more at ease when things quietened down after Amélie,' she says, switching between French and English at will. 'With this
film, of course, there will be a period where I will draw a lot of attention. But I know it will end and I can control it. Then I'll be able to go back to my normal life. I wouldn't want to be exposed to publicity throughout the year, like with Amélie.'
While Tautou has since worked in England, as a Turkish immigrant in Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, she knows that all eyes will be on her again now, to see if lightning can strike twice. Based on the First World War-set novel by Sébastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement sees Tautou play Mathilde, a polio-sufferer who doggedly sets out to discover the whereabouts of her fiance (newcomer Gaspard Ulliel), who was last seen heading off to fight in the Battle Of The Somme. 'Mathilde carries a lot of pain and desperation in her,' she explains. 'This role made me feel concentrated and solitary on the set. It's not that I was crying all the time, but I didn't feel as light as I did on Amélie.'
She delivers a first-rate performance as the star-crossed lover. Like Amélie, the film bursts with invention and, as Tautou puts it, 'perfect love, absolute love, very romantic love'. What about Tautou herself? Noticing a solitary gold band on her finger, I ask whether she believes in very long engagements. 'I do,' she states. 'My grandparents have been married for 65 years. But I am not engaged. This ring I'm wearing is not on the proper hand.' Although the French media have suggested that she is set to marry writer Lance Mazmanian, Tautou is determined to avoid the subject of her love life. 'I don't want to be this public person,' she groans.
One has to admire her tenacity. She looks visibly shocked when I pass on a comment Jeunet made to me earlier. 'She has changed a lot. She's happy - maybe because she's in love!' he said. 'We never talk about our private lives,' Tautou stammers. 'I never say. I'm a very secret person. He doesn't know my apartment, my friends. I am not willing to show everything about my feelings. I guard all that jealously.'
One can only assume Tautou is desperate to retain something of the normality she grew up with. Raised in the town of Montlucon, north of Paris, her father is a dentist, her mother a teacher, and when she was young she played the oboe in a youth orchestra and dreamed of being a primatologist, working with gorillas in the mist.
But at 17, when she enrolled on a Paris-based acting course, she was talent-spotted straight away. She says her parents 'were not really happy' about her new career, but knew that their little bookworm (she loves Oscar Wilde and Victor Hugo) would always have her studies to fall back on.
Yet as she trained, she couldn't admit - 'not even to myself' - that she wanted to perform for a living. 'I'd just let things come and things happen. I'd rather do things than talk about them.' After some minor roles on French TV, she made her breakthrough opposite the iconic Nathalie Baye as a beautician in 1999's Venus Beauty. Jeunet spotted her on the film's poster, and the rest is history - though not before she appeared topless in the film Le Libertin, something she's vowed never to do again.
If life after Amélie has been a process of re-adjustment for Tautou, perhaps the hardest thing has been escaping typecasting. Desperate to move away from her cutesy image, she played a bunny-boiler in He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not in the same year she worked for Frears.
Surprisingly, she has no interest in heading to Hollywood. 'I don't have that ambition. I don't want the sacrifices that come with it. 'It is not just Hollywood per se,' she explains. 'Making a film that will probably be seen, but is a really bad film - I'm not interested in that. Doing a film with Jeunet, I know people will go and see it. All I go through will be worthwhile.' Then she pulls out a pocket camera and snaps me. Just in case I should ever mess with her.
• A Very Long Engagement opens Fri 21 Jan.