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Audrey Tautou at the ‘Therese Desqueyroux‘ film premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 11, 2011

Broadimage/Rex Features

"I try to blend in as much as I can," says Audrey Tautou, through a French-English translator, from her perch at Toronto's plush Trump Hotel. "I much prefer environments where I can go without being noticed."

Tautou, 36, is wearing a lacy, black Prada dress with black pumps that seem perilous on her bird feet. She would perhaps blend in at a convention of beautiful widows.

Since making Amélie a whimsical worldwide hit in 2005, it is unlikely Tautou goes unnoticed anywhere in Paris, where she lives, or Toronto, where she is promoting Claude Miller's new adaptation of 1920s French novel Thérèse Desqueyroux. As Thérèse – a married countrywoman and compatriot of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Hedda Gabler and all shackled, life-lusting wives – Tautou is lovely and inscrutable. Anchoring her range, she acts with a near-grim determination, totally opposite to the infamous Amélie's flighty charm.

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It is also rather different – quieter, less openly tormented – from Emmanuelle Riva's performance in the 1962 adaptation of Thérèse. That, says Tautou, is incidental. "I did not watch [the 1962 film] because it came out on DVD soon before we began filming, and I did not want to be affected by it," she says.

Tautou has a rigid fragility. She claims to possess little confidence in herself, only in the director's vision of her. Yet she is precise and certain in her answers, quick to give a small imperious shake of her head when a question confuses or doesn't suit her.

No, she was not afraid to take on a heroine beloved in French literature.

No, she does not want to do more American movies.

"I look for a character with a rich journey through life," says Tautou, whose first favourite movie was The Sound of Music, and whose first role was in a Marcel Pagnol play in primary school. "I like a complex character. And Hollywood has a rather simplistic psychology."

Her experience filming The Da Vinci Code, a Hollywood movie to the max, she calls "exotic." She does not need to repeat it. Her reasoning is perfectly Gallic: "I have access to more beautiful roles in France."

The role of Thérèse is more beautiful than the person. Tautou, directed with period accuracy, provides a strong contrast to the ravishing, anachronistically thin Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's Anna Karenina. Unlike Knightley, a confounding favourite in literary adaptations, Tautou is willing to look older and much less sexy on screen.

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"That is how wives used to look," she says, shrugging. "I don't concern myself with how I look in a film, other than to look like the character."

Near film's end, Thérèse finds herself, at last, in one of those anonymous sidewalk cafés in Paris. It's the golden hour before sunset and she turns her face to the light, seeing everything and nobody. You can imagine Tautou at home in the same place, the same position. She doesn't see you noticing her.

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