Vive La Différence: Audrey Tautou's Unlikely Approach to Adaptation

Audrey Tatou in 'Delicacy'/Photo © 2011 StudioCanal
Audrey Tatou in 'Delicacy'/Photo © 2011 StudioCanal

Although she swans into Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater in winter-white Chanel and blood-red lips, Audrey Tautou is a mess. The former child star is perhaps best known for portraying Montmartre ragamuffin Amélie Poulain, and later, Rue Cambon ragamuffin Coco Chanel, but it's easy to forget that her Diana-obsessive Amélie first enchanted art houses over a decade ago. It could be why Tautou, on a cold Sunday night in March, is seized by panic each time an audience member gets up to quietly slip out of a Q&A that kicks off past eleven o'clock after her latest film “Delicacy” closes the seventeenth edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

"Ah shit," she frets, "they leave during my answer!" She pouts her crimson lips into the Tautou-brand logo. "I lose my confidence," she complains. Her role as Nathalie might just be hard to shake. The Foenkinos' feature-film debut based on brother David's French bestseller La Délicatesse is essentially a "my husband's dead" rom-com. Think Sandra Bullock in a black dress. By Chanel. The whole thing hinges on Tautou's irresistibility, which is beginning to wear thin and why the majority of her output must be sampled in specialty festivals like Rendez-Vous.

When programming director Richard Pena sets up a clip from "Amélie," Tautou self-effaces "from when I was young." She is in her mid-thirties. With all the earmarks of an obsessive, her IMDB entry literally begins "Audrey Justine Tautou (born 1976 or 1978)." For good measure, she repeats, "when I was young and …" then cracks her teeth, before adding, "Please don't leave!" I'm riveted. It's the ultimate nosedive. She began to lose her critic's-darling foothold after "Amélie" with re-treads like the aptly named "A Very Long Engagement" and English language forays like Stephen Frear's "Dirty Pretty Things," which made Geneviève Bujold look RADA-trained.

I don't have anything against phonetic acting. Tennessee Williams claims he wrote The Rose Tattoo screenplay phonetically for Anna Magnani and she took home our nation's top acting prize for that role; ditto Jean DuJardin for last year's "The Artist," although one could argue the language barrier in that role. Still, Penelope Cruz makes it work. She's the only Spanish-language actress to take home an Academy Award and did that stumping to the press via translator. Still, these precedents can't excuse Tautou's English-language turn in Ron Howard's 2006 adaptation of The Da Vinci Code as police cryptographer Sophie Neveu. The New York Times said her wooden performance would "ensure that her name will never again come up in an Internet search for the word gamine." It was the beginning of the end for Audrey Tautou.

A series of tres French heroines from the gold digger to office cleaner followed before Tautou made one final push with 2009's "Coco Before Chanel." And it was admirable. The New York Times called her young Chanel "fierce and sinewy" adding it was "a decisive break with the dimpled-pixie typecasting she has been struggling against since Amélie." And although it hit abroad, it only made back six of its twenty-three-million-dollar production budget here. Americans had already seen it in Shirley MacLaine's 2008 TV-movie twirl as Chanel and television still looms in Tautou's problems stateside.

As more people capitalize on the lights dimming as their cue to leave, it's impossible not to wonder if they're scurrying home to DVR-ed facsimiles of Tautou that clutter network prime-time from Zooey Deschanel to Krysten Ritter all serving manufactured quirk harder than the first time Tautou tucked a flower behind her ear. But maybe, in addition to being neurotic, Audrey Tautou is just plain lazy.

"Natalie was very clear in the script," she admits from the stage about her latest character. "She was very precise, but it's true I get influence and inspiration from people I have around me. The main thing for me was dignity and how you keep your head up even if you have to deal with a terrible moment." It's only after the crowd thins that a lingering Tautou admits she never read Foenkinos' La Délicatesse.

"I could always have a discussion with the author himself," she says of the unusual situation wherein the source's author co-directed. "He would tell me if I was on track," she continues, cautioning about "too much information." Finally, she says, "I wanted to go with my first impression of the character," which is fine if an actress is creating a role, but just moments ago Foenkinos discussed the need to "adapt the text so that it is suitable for cinema" admitting "pages and pages" of his book make up "thirty seconds of screen time."

For an actress whose body of work is so based in adapted text, and figures drawn from life, the approach is horrifying. With "Delicacy" plugging along in a quixotic, city-by-city domestic release; a role in the adaptation of French writer Olivier Adams' Des Vents Contraires and the lead in French writer Francois Mauriac's Thérèse Desqueyroux in the can; and roles in the third installment in the Cédric Klapisch trilogy launched with "L'Auberge Espangole"; and Michel Gondry's adaptation of Boris Vian's L'Ecume Des Jours in various stages of production, one can only hope Tautou has packed a good book for the plane ride back to Paris. And hopefully it's one in which she'll star.