You can be cheerful and unhappy without being fake, says Pete Doherty.

You can be cheerful and unhappy without being fake, says Pete Doherty.

SO OFTEN, Pete Doherty says, he meets people and knows he's a disappointment. ''Because I'm not completely f---ed up,'' he says. ''There's always someone who will say 'didn't you eat a dog yesterday? Aren't you giving crack to cats, or killing some innocent girl?' They expect a scratching, dribbling mess, but that person doesn't really exist.''

That Pete Doherty - who also fronted the Libertines and then Babyshambles, who was always in the gossip columns with Kate Moss or Amy Winehouse, falling out of windows and whose name kept popping up in connection with people who had died of overdoses - was a half-imaginary creature of the tabloids, he says. Unfortunately, this same Pete Doherty kept getting very real jail sentences. ''These things all got a bit of out of hand,'' he says. ''I was in jail all the time and I was in with some not-good people. I don't know what happened, really.''

Plenty has happened, however, since his last incarceration - a six-month sentence for cocaine possession, cut short to little more than six weeks - ended last July. Doherty now lives in Paris, which he evokes as a tranquil haven. When we meet, however, it is at the Cannes Film Festival. Doherty is now an actor; he is the star of Confessions of a Child of the Century, adapted from a 19th-century novel that has the same sort of rebel cult status among the French that Jack Kerouac's On the Road has for Anglophones.

Cast member Pete Doherty poses during a photocall for the film Confession of a Child of the Century at the 65th Cannes Film Festival.

Pete Doherty poses during a photocall for the film Confession of a Child of the Century at the 65th Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Reuters

Written by Alfred de Musset, a Romantic contemporary of Charles Baudelaire, it tells the story of a dissipated young man who seeks redemption through the love of a bookish older woman, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Director Sylvie Verheyde says she sent her script to Doherty, despite reasonable fears he would be trouble, because ''he is a symbol of the sacred and damned poet, like de Musset in his time … he's brilliant, too.''

He is certainly a natural, and while his performance has been dubbed ''catastrophic'' by some critics; as a poetry enthusiast, he speaks the elaborate translations of de Musset's narrative without affectation. The leitmotif he carried with him, he says, was a remembered passing mention of de Musset, in a literary memoir, being thrown out of an absinthe bar. ''That's the idea I had in my head, of his being an absinthe drinker,'' he says. ''A thick soup of absinthe, not the thin liquid.''

It isn't easy to picture the tabloid Pete Doherty submitting to the discipline and dawn starts of a film set. ''If I'd known the regime I probably wouldn't have done it,'' he says. ''But once you've started it, you can't … I don't think there was one occasion when I thought 'this has got to stop'.'' Problems arose only when the producers tried to insist he stay clean on set. Impossible, he says; as an addict, he needs maintenance doses just to function.

''There was quite a bit of espionage. I had to meet people around the back of the trailer and whatnot. It was a nightmare because I was existing on the minimum I could; it wasn't like I was getting it to go and get high. I'd have to fix up just to be able to get out of bed, but then I'd be working all day. It wasn't like my whole day was focusing on drugs like it normally is.'' More than that, he says, at the end of each day he wanted to go back and live it again.

Now, at 33, he feels, well, not happy exactly. ''I'm not that happy a person. But you can be cheerful and unhappy without being fake.'' He still writes poetry - he won a prize for poetry from the British Council when he was only 16 - but not much ''because I don't tend to write when I'm content''. These days, Doherty spends much of his time painting. ''Painting, I suppose, is the only thing where I don't really watch the clock … I just do it all the time.''

In Cannes, he has rolled up on time for every interview required of him, which is more than can be said for quite a few more respectable stars. So what is his current drug status? ''Clean as a whistle, mate,'' he says with one of his wistful, boyish smiles. I don't believe him for a second.