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Life after Amelie: Audrey Tautou in Cannes spotlight

PARIS - Audrey Tautou, this year's Cannes Film Festival mistress of ceremonies, won hearts around the world - if not those of critics back home - as the pixie-faced heroine of "The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain".

Still wrestling with the burden of that success and famously ill at ease with the limelight, Tautou will be put to a radical test as the frontwoman for the world's most prestigious movie festival.

Raised in a quiet corner of rural France, Tautou has largely shunned Hollywood and says she does not see herself as a movie star.

Her role at Wednesday's night's opening ceremony will require her to put on the glitz and set aside self-effacement as she welcomes some of the biggest names in the industry, from Steven Spielberg to Nicole Kidman.

"Amelie", in which a quirky Montmartre waitress played by Tautou decides to dedicate herself to helping others out, took over $173 million worldwide and remains the highest-grossing French-language film ever released in the US.

One recent interviewer, Isabelle Girard, concluded that although famous everywhere from "Hollywood to Kyrgyzstan", Tautou was a shrinking violet who took pleasure in making herself appear invisible.

"Celebrity makes me awkward. I am not comfortable with it," Tautou told Girard in an interview for Le Figaro.

Her tendency to immerse herself in roles meant she often saw her own family almost as strangers during filming, said Tautou.

"That's why I don't do more than two films a year and one day I will stop... perhaps," she said.

Brought up in France's south-central Auvergne region, Tautou enjoyed a sheltered childhood.

Her parents - a dental surgeon and a doctor-turned-teacher - inculcated in Tautou and her two sisters and brother a respect for education and hard work.

She developed an interest in acting at school and after passing her Baccalaureate, the French high-school diploma, asked her parents to send her to theatre summer school.

In 1999, she appeared in Tonie Marshall's "Venus Beauty", picking up the Cesar for most promising young actress at the following year's French film awards.

Just one year later in 2001, she was catapulted into the stratosphere with "Amelie".

Some French critics did not mince their view that the film was shallower than a Paris puddle. Philippe Lancon of the daily Liberation blasted the movie for transposing "Euro Disney to Montmartre".

Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things" and Cedric Klapisch's "L'Auberge Espagnole" followed in 2002 and in 2006, she appeared with Tom Hanks in the blockbuster "Da Vinci Code".

But Tautou has struggled to shake off her image as the gamine from Montmartre.

"The problem for Audrey Tautou is that she is doomed to trail clouds of 'Amelie' wherever she goes," said US reviewer Anthony Lane of her performance in 2009's "Coco Before Chanel."

"Those inky round eyes and that pixie mug insure that hers are the features, poor thing, that social anthropologists will eternally reach for when asked to illustrate the term gamine."

Twelve years after "Amelie", attitudes appear to be softening at home. The Nouvel Observateur, while stressing that it regarded "Amelie" as "unwatchable", last month hinted that it saw Tautou's recent choices in a more favourable light.

"Therese Desqueyroux", an adaptation of Francois Mauriac's 1927 novel with Tautou in the lead role, closed Cannes last year.

Her latest film "L'Ecume des Jours" about a woman whose illness can only be treated surrounded by flowers has just been released in France.

"In accepting the role as maitresse de ceremonie and presenting herself in more ambitious films," the weekly Nouvel Observateur said, "we can hope that the second half of Tautou's career might flourish away from mediocrity: to be more precious, rare and unique."

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