For Charlotte Gainsbourg there has been no resting on her laurels after the success of Nymphomaniac. 2014 has been an UNBELIEVABLY FBUITFUL YEAR FOR HER, adding another 6 films to her long fist of screen successes
NOR HAVE THESE been the kind of provocative film which we might have expected after Nymphomaniac: Gainsbourg has been trying out more human, softer, even amusing roles.
THE 42-YEAR-OLD actress with a melancholy smile, gentle voice, and the body of a teenager does not look in the least like a tearaway, yet has had a scandalous reputation ever since she was a child. Her father is Serge Gainsbourg, the cult French singer; her mother, Jane Birkin, the 70s sex symbol and style icon. Even as a baby, Charlotte was part of the show of her celebrity parents’ life. Jane adored being photographed naked with her little daughters and the papers were full of photos of the happy family; but the reality was different: parents who came home from partying just as Charlotte and her sister Kate were getting ready to go to school; her father’s periodic bouts of drinking; and the constant presence of paparazzi outside the front door. And yet somehow, in the midst of all this bohemian life, the family managed to keep its balance.
“WE WERE NEVER ashamed of anything in our family,” explains Charlotte. But there were strict rules, the most important one being honest and open. For instance, at home they never spoke English, Jane’s native tongue, because Serge did not understand it. “Mama absolutely did not wish to create for us a language that would be secret from him”.
CHARLOTTE’S CINEMATIC debut came at the age of 12, in Paroles et Musique with Catherine Deneuve. Three years later, she collected a Cesar for Most Promising Actress in the comedy L’Effrontee. By this time she was already notorious: when she was 13, Serge had put her in Lemon Incest, a video about the love between a father and daughter. The song remained in the French hit parade for 10 weeks, but Charlotte was almost unaffected by the scandal. Her career was taking off and she was picking up roles in films by France's best directors — including Claude Miller, Francois Truffaut, and Bertrand Blier. Her strength was in playing provocative characters.
AND WHAT WAS French cinema’s most audacious girl up to in her free time? From her earliest years Gainsbourg loathed partying and nightclubs. She even lied to her friends, telling them she was not allowed out late at night. The stormy love affairs which one might have expected from a bohemian passed her by. Instead, she met Yvan Attal on the set of Aux Yeux du Monde. They have been together for more than 20 years and are bringing up three children.
IN THE NOUGHTIES Charlotte was invited to take part in Hollywood projects such as I’m Not There, a biopic of Bob Dylan starring Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger. One of the most interesting roles she played at this time was in Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. Previously, she had played women with difficult lives; now she was an inhabitant of a surrealistic dream world. What attracted her in the role was that it offered her a true challenge. “I like testing my limits. The main condition for this kind of self-expression is complete faith in the director — then it ’ s not so frightening if your work causes controversy”, she says. Charlotte had long dreamed of working with Lars von Trier, in spite of rumours of his toughness towards his actors. Their first meeting was strange. Lars was clearly out of sorts: he looked exhausted, jittery, avoided looking at Gainsbourg, and bred at her a string of disconnected questions: “Are you familiar with depression? Do you know what a panic attack is?”
“FOR SOME REASON I wanted to seem normal to point up his weakness. I replied — I don’t know why — that I had never experienced anything of the kind. I was sure I’d failed the interview”, recalls Charlotte. When she received an offer of a part in Antichrist, she decided it was ajoke.
WORKING WITH LARS, she felt as if she was on a film set for the first time — in spite of the more than 30 films already under her belt. “It’s as if he’s taking you into the darkest comers of your personality. It’s frightening, but exciting at the same time!”
VON TRIER IS KNOWN for creating an oppressive atmosphere on the set so as to get stronger emotions from his actors. Yes, to work with him, you have to be a bit of a masochist, admits Charlotte. But that is also her own way of getting into each new part she plays. “I don’t like things to be easy. In each role I try to find the dark side.”
IN ANTICHRIST SHE PLAYED a mother who loses her mind after the death of her child. Hysterics, panic attacks, the desire to destroy everything around about: all this was not just a difficult test, but also… psychotherapy of a kind. Not long before shooting was due to start, Charlotte had injured her head while waterskiing and underwent a serious operation. After this brush with death, she lost her ability to take decisions and was afraid for her children, afraid of everything. “Antichrist cured me of my weakness”, she says. “I had to start working on something that was more important than me”. The result was a Best Actress Award at Cannes.
CHARLOTTE DREAMED of working with von Trier again, but was afraid he was already tired of her; so the offer of a part in Melancholia was a pleasant surprise. “I was oveijoyed”, she says. “I couldn’t wait to meet him again on the hint set”. Unconditional subordination now became second nature to her. At the press conference held for Melancholia in Cannes Lars provoked a scandal when he said, “You know, there are times when I can understand Hitler”. Charlotte needed to say something to distance herself from the remark, but was unable to get a word out. Lars was declared persona non grata. Charlotte hid from the press, desperately ashamed of her silence.
NEVERTHELESS, SHE RESOLVED to forget the incident and gladly accepted a part in van Trier’s new film. Nymphomaniac. But what would her family and friends say about a film that borders on pornography? When Charlotte read the script to her mother, Jane Birkin laughed until she cried. Charlotte took her baby daughter Joe with her and breastfed her in the hotel at night. “Then I again changed from an angel into a demon”, she says.
IN SPITE OF HER SUCCESSES, melancholy continues to flicker in Gainsbourg's eyes and her voice sounds gentle and a little shy. “We live in an age when everything around us is so positive and it’s the done thing to praise yourself. But I prefer to criticize myself — it’s my way of getting pleasure from life. I simply hope I can improve. That’s why I want to work with Lars again and release another record. I’m flattered by compliments, but I try to forget them as soon as possible”. ♦