Friday, January 29th, 2010
The doorman at The Carlyle doesn’t know who Charlotte Gainsbourg is. Told she’s in movies, he only nods: « We get a lot of those. » But this one is half French and wholly Parisian, willowy and whispery and smoky – no? And when she’s not an actor, she’s a singer – a chanteuse -and longtime muse for Balenciaga. The poor man still hasn’t the faintest idea, but now he’s curious. I say, finally: « She looks like a deer? In very high heels? » Now a spark alights in the doorman’s eyes. He says: « Her? I thought she was a ballerina. »
Such is the sly enchantment of Charlotte Gainsbourg, who, at 38, is past the retiring age of tiny dancers. She’s also past the designated years of it-girl- ness and fashion muse-ment. She’s past flaunting her album (IRM, recorded with Beck) and her latest movie (Antichrist from Lars von Trier, for which she won best actress at Cannes).
Yet here she is. The daughter of Serge is now flaunting Balenciaga (the perfume) as she has done Balenciaga (the clothes) for years. She still looks the ingénue and her every song begins like she’s taking her first breath on earth. She’s poised half-on, half-off a stiff Victorian chair and clad in black lace (oui, Balenciaga). Little makeup, no layers. When she laughs – say, at the notion that she might someday, like her mother, Jane Birkin, have a $5,000 handbag named after her – it’s only lightly. A fragility this perfect belongs to the rarest star: one who’s never had to break out to make it.
« When I was young, I needed to protect myself, and keep some secrecy about me, because people knew everything about my parents, » she says, and indeed not a year after meeting in 1968, her parents recorded Je t’aime… moi non plus, a hit ringing with the sound of her mother’s simulated orgasms. « So I needed to, yeah, to keep a distance. I started being very, very shy. »
It isn’t that Gainsbourg is naturally shy, then, but that she is necessarily so. (She later says, « It wasn’t only shyness. It was something bigger: I didn’t really want to share. ») And she was shyer even than usual, she says, to first meet Nicolas Ghesquière, backstage after a show. « It was so crowded, and I didn’t feel familiar, » she explains. « I’m not concerned with fashion, in general. » But then she felt the clothes, their power to adorn and to shield, and she quickly swore fashion allegiance. Before Ghesquière, she recalls, « each time I had to dress up felt like a nightmare. » And after? « It was [like] suddenly becoming my own. »
She can’t name a favourite season of Balenciaga, but knows the pieces closest to her heart – like a molded little black jacket worn on her first tour of Cannes jury duty, May 2007. « I felt like a little soldier, » she says. « It was wonderful to be protected like that. » From what? « Um, you’re looked at quite a lot, » she sighs, quite gently. « And I tend to like the quietness of my own life. I’m not – I don’t go out very much. I’m very secretive, and I like to be that way. So yeah, a shield is good. »
It’s in her film work, specifically her masochistic, tortured role in Antichrist, that Gainsbourg the soldier becomes Gainsbourg the exhibitionist. « I think I do this job, acting, to be able to go into places I wouldn’t go by myself, » says Gainsbourg. And then, contrary to everything that’s come before: « I like danger. I like the violence. »
« At the end of the [Antichrist] shoot, I was very tired by the experience, but so thrilled. I thought – how lucky I was to be able to be so hysterical for two months! You know, to be in a crisis and then go back to your quiet self. »
And in the end, the closest she comes to describing that self is in describing the thing she’s selling, this fragrance. « There’s a darkness about it, » she says, slowly. « It’s not only floral and sweet – like when you think of violet, it’s quite lively, and it could be romantic. It’s not. I don’t find it romantic. I find it feminine, straightforward, and with a bit of an edge. »
So there at last you see Charlotte, but through a glass bottle, dimly.