Charlotte Gainsbourg

A Portrait of an Ethereal Icon

Dress, Rodarte.

Charlotte Gainsbourg answers her phone with a breathy and distant hello, as if she were in the middle of packing for a flight or stepping out of the shower. The actress and musician has been running a very brief public relations circuit from Los Angeles to New York in the past three days, so a slight shortness of breath is not entirely unexpected. Normally, media relations like these are kept focused on one particular project, but there has not been anything remotely “normal” about this year for Gainsbourg. It is not every year that an artist has both a critically acclaimed album produced by Beck and also wins Best Actress at Cannes for a Lars von Trier film.

In a day and age where people happen to give more attention to fashion spreads that feature Dree Louise Hemingway Crisman, Elizabeth Jagger and Theodora Dupree Richards; Twitter spats between Frances Bean Cobain and Ali Lohan; and pay exorbitant fees for someone like Kelly Osbourne to appear at red carpet shindigs, the daughter of famed poet and singer Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin continues to cast a blinding light on what would otherwise be a dark shadow of inherited celebrity.

Yet what is truly remarkable about the trajectory of her career and possibly the reason why Gainsbourg remains an avant-garde icon, is the grace in which she carries herself both on and off the screen. She is a woman of contrariety to some degree. She cherishes her time feeling protected with her family and feels uncomfortable when people stare at her yet, she has starred in over 40 films and was raised in the international spotlight. Her role in von Trier’s Antichrist involved full frontal nudity, masturbation, genital mutilation, and intimate sex scenes, but she claims that she is truly terrified when she thinks about singing in front of an audience.

The significance of her recent accomplishments is amplified even more when one considers that it was just over two years since she was rushed to a Paris hospital and had to have surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage. And while her brilliant new album, IRM is French for MRI, her effortless approach and ethereal delivery seems to deal more with matters of the heart than neurological tics. SOMA sat down with Gainsbourg as she was preparing for a flight back to Paris and talked about her unlikely kinship with von Trier, her fears, insecurities and hopes, and what she still finds mysterious about making some of the most important films in contemporary cinema.

How did you and Beck cross paths?
We met through Nigel Godrich, who produced The Information and 5:55.

That’s funny because I was thinking that IRM sounds a lot like Mutations. Did you meet at a show?
Well, there were a couple of times I ran into him at concerts he was playing. But he was always a bit shy and it was a bit brief.

Were the sessions in Los Angeles?
Yes, but we first tried things out for about a five-day session just to see how we could work together. I then went back to Paris and it was quite a long time before I heard anything. I went to do the film with Lars von Trier and I was completely isolated.

So when did you know it was a good fit?
When I came back I listened to the mixes that he had done and realized that I loved it and wanted him to do the entire album. Nothing was definite at first though. We talked about working together but we didn’t know where it would lead us.

As an artist, what compels you to work with individuals like Jarvis Cocker, Air and Beck?
It is just very easy for me because they are people that I admire greatly. I have been lucky that I am just able to call or run into them from time to time. It just turned out that they wanted to work with me too; and that makes me feel incredibly lucky. However, it is not as if I went and picked through a supermarket or anything.

Do you collect lyrics? When you get on that plane this evening will you write in a notebook or journal?
Well, to be completely honest, I don’t know how to write lyrics. I haven’t done it. I have been trying for that past year and a half to work with Beck and on lyrics, because he makes it sound like it is so easy.

He has a knack for words.
Absolutely, and he was always pushing me to try. So, I came up with words and phrases and little bits and pieces, but never whole lyrics. I’m still trying but I don’t think that I got that talent. It’s nice to try because you can get into a story and kind of implicate yourself. It is a way for me to enter the album, but as far as a result, I didn’t get close to a song.

Tank, Raquel Allegra.
Snake bracelets, Kathy Rose.

This has been an incredible year for you. It is refreshing to see an independent film like Antichrist with that much tenacity and heart. There is a rumor that you might have gravitated towards the script because of that accident and your brain surgery. Is there any truth to that?
Well, yes and no, I suppose. I had the accident and then nine months went by where I had to stay in Paris. I could have worked, but I just couldn’t find anything. I was very fragile in my head. I was very insecure and it was a very strange time. The recovery from the surgery took a very long time as well, and I just happened to be on holiday the following summer and I came across the script. Another actress turned down the film at the last minute, so they were in a hurry.

So how long did it take for you to sign up for the role?
I read the material and I was not sure if I understood everything, but I was so compelled because it was such a fascinating story. I also wanted to meet him and work with him, so I ran to Denmark.

Was it like listening to the Beck mixes? Did you know right away that you would be a good fit?
The meeting was a bit strange. Actually, I didn’t think that I interested him very much and I went back home thinking that I would never get the role, but a week later he called and said that he wanted me to do it.

There are scenes in this film where you convey a very stripped down and vulnerable character who has gone through a great deal of loss. Did the year of insecurity that you just mentioned inform your role?
I don’t really know, because I didn’t really analyze my work. I know that I was thinking about my own health for so long and panicked about dying, and it was just a release to dive into the material. It might have been based on death and fears, but they were not mine. I just wanted to go very heavily into something that took me away from my own little fear. I think I was just ready to experience something heavy. I think I wanted to be manipulated by him, and I suffered a little bit… but I wanted to suffer. It was a bit narcissistic on my side, and I understood and was aware of that at the time. I was in a state of mind that was… well, particular.

Shirt, Raquel Allegra.
Pants, Rodarte.
Necklace, Charlotte’s own.

Lars has a speckled past when working with female leads. I heard that Björk actually ate her dress and Nicole Kidman once asked him, ‘Why do you hate women so much?’ He has the ability to court actresses who are at the top of their game to make these films, but there is also this repulsion from the very same actresses that have worked with him. What was your experience like with him?
I didn’t see an evil man. Instead I saw someone very fragile himself and openly fragile. He was not insecure, but he was physically weak. When people say that this is a misogynistic film, I didn’t see any hatred for women, just a lot of fear. But I was playing him. There wasn’t a dialogue between us, but there was a communication that I felt my character was so close to him that I didn’t feel any hatred or any repulsion to him at all. On the contrary, I felt very protected.

Did he give you a fair warning before you began filming?
He told me from the very start that I would have to trust him for what I would have to do in the film… be naked and such. He said that I would have to trust that he wouldn’t show anything that I would be embarrassed about. And he was right. I trusted him completely and he didn’t trick me. He was very faithful and honest, and he has a very crude honesty that I really like. He doesn’t overly protect you. He says the truth if you are crap in a scene, and he will say so. But he will say the same about himself. He won’t pretend that he is capable of doing something if he is not. I wasn’t surprised with anything. I just felt like I was on the same wavelength that he was and willing to go there.

It really translates with the film. The scenes are so very beautifully haunting and dreamlike.
That’s great to hear because although with Cannes it was a wonderful moment to show the film and receive the prize, I also got the feeling that people didn’t really get the film or even hated it. The reactions were as we expected and very violent, but I found that his vision was so artistic and original that I was hoping that people understood the film.

So where are you taking the album next?
I am going to take it very slowly. I have never toured. I made a few small appearances with Air, and it was so terrifying that I thought I would never do it again. With this album and Beck’s help I am really willing to try. I want to have that experience, but it is really the first time. I don’t want to put too much pressure on my shoulders.

You say that you are terrified of being on stage. That seems strange coming from someone who has probably been seen by millions and millions of people on film.
It is so different to be with a film crew as opposed to on stage. It is just so much more intimate. It is certainly different from being in front of a crowd that you don’t know. I don’t think of myself as a singer. I don’t have a singer’s voice. I just have my personality, and in my mind it is not much. It is terrifying because I’m not a performer. When it is just myself out there, I feel very unprotected.

Yet, in Antichrist you are seen naked, screaming, crying, having sex and being choked in this incredibly violent way.
Yes, but that is with just one partner. You don’t think about who is going to see you or watch the film. You don’t even think of a film as a whole. There are just moments, and a take is just nothing compared to the whole film and people watching you. It is very different for me. I need to feel isolated. It is something I feel comfortable with.

After 40 films and a lifetime in front of the camera, is there anything that you still find mysterious about the process?
It’s still very uncalculated and unpredictable when making a film, which is great. I still consider myself as a debutante, even with films. Each time I start a movie, I am not sure I will be able to do anything. I have big doubts about myself, so the process is always new. Discovering the way to work within these things is always really exciting. For me it is not about mystery, but rather discovering somebody else’s world and accommodating yourself to it. That process makes you different.

– Patrick Knowles

Photography by Lauren Dukoff

Stylist: Djuna Bel.
Hair: Paul Rizzo
for Bumble and Bumble.
Makeup: Kathy Jeung.