Since debuting aged 13 with her father, Serge Gainsbourg, on a pop single called ‘Lemon Incest’, the French-British actress and singer has courted controversy. Last year she starred as a demonic mother in Lars von Trier’s controversial film Antichrist. As her third album is released, made with US songwriter Beck, she talks to Sean O’Hagan about her recent brain surgery and her enduring feelings for her late father
By Sean O’Hagan, The Observer, January 10, 2010
In the summer of 2007, Charlotte Gainsbourg had what seemed like a minor water-skiing accident. Six months later, after attending a gala screening in Venice of Todd Haynes’s film, I’m Not There, in which she played one of Bob Dylan’s wives, she suffered « a seven day headache ». Back home in Paris, she went to the doctor for a check-up and found out that she was lucky to be alive.
« They did an MRI scan and found that my brain had been pushed to the side and my head was filled with blood, » she says, sounding slightly dazed. « The doctor was totally shocked. He told me that I should be dead or paralysed. »
Though the subsequent emergency surgery was successful (« It basically consisted of drilling a hole in my head »), it took Gainsbourg a long time to accept that she was well again. Until the spring of 2008, she insisted on undergoing a series of MRI scans convinced that she was going to die. Nothing the doctors could do or say convinced her that this was not the case.
« It was a strange and fragile time, » she says now, her impeccably modulated English delivered in a soft, almost whispered French accent punctuated by long pauses while she pursues the right word. « The doctors kept telling me I was fine but I had some instinct that I wasn’t. It was a kind of post-traumatic anxiety, constantly feeling very vulnerable and thinking I was going to die at any minute. » Did it make her afraid to work? « For a time, yes. It was like I needed to be in a cocoon just with my family. I was very surprised to see how weak and fragile I was. That was very new. I had always thought I was very strong and courageous. I had no idea how scared I was of dying. »
Her emotional recuperation began in earnest, she says, when she returned to work. In spring 2008 she travelled to Los Angeles not to make a film but to meet Beck, the American songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist. They had previously been introduced at a White Stripes concert and no doubt Gainsbourg had also been intrigued by Beck’s sampling of a snatch of her father, Serge Gainsbourg’s classic song, « Melody Nelson », for the track « Paper Tiger » on his album Sea Change.
In Beck’s home studio, they began working tentatively on a handful of sketchy songs. « It took me out of my small miseries to be immersed in work, to be overwhelmed by someone else. » One of the first things Gainsbourg did was play Beck a recording of the sound of an MRI scanner that she had found on the internet. « For me, it was the sound of delirium, » she says, breaking into a short, nervous laugh that recurs each time she talks about anything personal. « That was my first input – the most intimate, revealing sound I could imagine. »
One of Beck’s early lyrics for the album included the fragment, « drill my head full of holes », written, she says, before he knew about her accident. « He apologised afterwards, » she says, smiling, « but I felt it was some kind of connection. »
More often than not, the news that an actor has recorded an album sets the heart sinking, but somehow this is not the case with IRM – the French abbreviation for MRI – Charlotte Gainsbourg’s new album. It is, as with everything that bears Beck’s imprint, an eclectic mix of styles, the single unifying factor being Gainsbourg’s detached and breathy vocals. (On the dreamy, string-laden « ‘Le Chat du Café des Artistes », she sounds uncannily like Françoise Hardy at her most seductive.) A great part of the album’s success comes from the juxtaposition of Beck’s cut-and-paste musical landscapes and Gainsbourg’s fragile vocal style which echoes her emotional minimalism as an actor.
IRM is Gainsbourg’s third album, though 20 years separates Charlotte For Ever, the album she made as a teenager with her father, and 2006’s critically acclaimed 5:55, which was produced by Nigel Godrich of Radiohead fame and featured songs written for her by the likes of Air and Jarvis Cocker. It sold respectably here and reached the No 1 spot in her native France where she is revered.
Gainsbourg’s choice of collaborators, like her choice of directors, has been canny. IRM could easily have turned into a Beck album featuring her on vocals but it sounds like a proper collaboration, with songs referencing her recent traumas as well as her acting. « Beck kept pushing me to write, » she says with characteristic self-deprecation, « but my father’s genius weighs too heavy on me. »
I ask her what exactly her input was. « Well, he’d start with a rhythm and I’d react. Then, he’d gradually build a song. I came up with a few words and titles, » she says, unabashedly, « but mainly I came to him with ideas and directions that I wanted to take. I brought some books: the poetry of Apollinaire, Through the Looking-Glass. Just clues for him, really. We didn’t have profound ideas or discussions. He just guessed what I wanted to sing about. »
In person, Charlotte Gainsbourg is exactly as I imagined her. Gamine, quietly stylish, slightly otherworldly, she epitomises a certain kind of ultra-refined contemporary cool that is a world away from the Hollywood ideal of stardom or beauty. At 38, she remains an unconventional beauty, and in a certain light is a dead ringer for the young Patti Smith as immortalised by Robert Mapplethorpe. Someone should cast her soon in the biopic.
Today, in the tea room of this Bayswater hotel, she is chic in jeans and black top with a brown leather jacket draped over her shoulders. At first she appears shy and awkward, slightly somewhere else; it’s that same mixture of vulnerability and self-containment she brings to her screen roles. She seems inordinately well balanced, though, which is quite something given her unconventional background.
Her father, the late singer-actor-director Serge Gainsbourg, was the proto-punk provocateur who became France’s best loved anti-hero; her mother, Jane Birkin, was his muse, a beautiful English actress and singer who, for a time, became part of his great amoral misadventure. Together, they recorded « Je t’aime, moi non plus » in 1969, a song whose sexual suggestion – it includes a simulated female orgasm – was denounced by the Pope and deemed too improper for the British public to hear on the radio. Unsurprisingly, it reached No 1 in the charts here and in France. (Serge had originally recorded it with France’s greatest sex symbol, Brigitte Bardot, but, having got married in the interim, she successfully pleaded with him not to release their version.)
In 1984, when she was just 13, Charlotte duetted with her father on a single called « Lemon Incest », which made « Je t’aime » seem positively quaint. It seemed to celebrate both incest and paedophilia, though, when I bring it up, she insists it does neither. Despite, or because of, the scandal the song caused, it spent 10 weeks in the French top 10 and bestowed on the pre-pubescent Gainsbourg an unwelcome notoriety. « Fortunately, » she says, « I had just gone to boarding school when the song came out. I was totally unaware of this big scandal. I was protected from it. »
How, though, did she feel singing the song, and then acting coquettishly in the accompanying video in which both are sprawled on a double bed, he shirtless and she wearing only a shirt and knickers? « Oh, I was not innocent singing it, » she says, « I knew what I was talking about. But for me, it wasn’t a problem. I had fun with it. Plus, there was pureness behind it. It’s really the love of a father and daughter. It says in the song – the love that will never do together. And, you know, » she adds, smiling, « even then I imagine I was used to his excitement about provocation. This is what he was good at. »
The only time she felt embarrassed by her father as a child, she says, was when he burnt a 500 franc note on live television. « The next day in school, the kids burnt my work. It was a stupid kids’ thing but it was upsetting. I do think I was shy and I had to build a shield, a carapace. But I didn’t suffer. Ever. I had a good childhood. »
Her parents, she insists, were, for all their nocturnal carousing and all her father’s notoriety, essentially « very modest and normal ». They raised her and her half-sister, Kate – Birkin’s daughter by John Barry, the film composer who created the James Bond theme – in typically bourgeois fashion with boarding school, piano lessons, classical music and classic novels. Her mother, she says, loved the experience of making films and « transmitted » that pleasure to her daughter early on. (Her maternal grandmother, Judy Campbell, was also an actress and a great beauty and became Noel Coward’s muse.)
Charlotte appeared on screen for the first time, aged 13, as Catherine Deneuve’s daughter in an obscure French film called Paroles et Musiques. In 1986, aged 15, she won a César award for Most Promising Actress for her role in L’effrontée. There is a clip of her big moment on YouTube in which she is kissed rather too long and passionately on the lips by her proud father and then breaks down in childish tears as she attempts a speech. She looks like a brooding, pouty little boy and something of that attitude remains faintly discernible underneath her detached demeanour.
It was The Cement Garden, though, that first brought her to the attention of a British audience in 1993. An adaptation of Ian McEwan’s first novel directed by her uncle, Andrew Birkin, it remains a powerfully unsettling piece of work, where once again, incest, this time between brother and sister, is the theme. Like her mother, Gainsbourg seems to have the urge to break with convention and provoke the kind of controversy her father thrived on.
Gainsbourg has made around 35 films to date, ranging from the high costume drama of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre in 1996 to the postmodern weirdness of Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. In 2001, she starred opposite her real-life husband, the actor Yvan Attal, in Claude Berri’s anaemic romantic comedy My Wife Is An Actress. The couple have two children, Ben, aged 12, and Alice, aged 7. Apart from Jane Eyre and her appearance alongside Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro in 21 Grams, she has resisted the lure – and lucre – of Hollywood, content to live in and work out of Paris. When I ask her if she is satisfied with her CV, the answer is surprising.
« It’s very difficult for me to even admit that I am an actress, » she says, quietly. « Because I began doing this during the school holidays and I never went to drama school, I always feel that somehow I am not really a part of it. And I don’t have a method. Every time, it is like doing my first film all over again. »
Last year, Gainsbourg found herself at the centre of a media controversy that would have made her father proud. When Lars von Trier’s Antichrist debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, so shocking were its scenes of sexual violence that it was greeted with boos and jeers, as well as scattered applause. In it, her character was required to go slowly and spectacularly mad following the death of her infant son, her derangement leading her to mutilate her husband, played by Willem Dafoe. In one graphic scene, she bores a hole in his leg. In another, she slices off her own clitoris.
Antichrist was the first film Gainsbourg acted in after her brain haemorrhage. Her performance won her the best actress award at Cannes. I put it to her that accepting a role in a Lars von Trier movie might not be the healthiest way to deal with one’s post-traumatic anxiety. « Oh, but it was! » she says, suddenly animated. « He goes so deep into something extreme that you have to forget about yourself. Plus, he was very vulnerable also. I saw someone very insecure and even more worried about his health than I was about mine. In a way, I felt very close as a character to his experience. »
What, I ask, did her mother make of the film? « She loved it. She was part of the experience because I was texting her every day to tell her what I was doing. » Did she actually text her mother and say, « Today I had to cut off my clitoris? » She cracks up laughing. « Yeah! Something like that. We were laughing all the time. It was a release from the intensity of the shoot, to be able to step back and make fun of myself a little bit. »
Inevitably, the talk turns to her father, whose death of a heart attack in 1991 prompted mass grieving in Paris with President Mitterand calling him « our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire ». I had read somewhere that his house on Rue de Verneuil in Paris had been left untouched since his death and that she wanted to turn it into a museum. She falls silent for a moment and I feel that I have maybe crossed a line. « No, » she says finally, « I’ve stopped all that. I spent 17 years thinking and planning it but then, after my accident, there was a moment when I said no to everything for a while. I think this was the turning point. I suddenly realised that I did not want people coming to his house to know everything about him. They already know everything about him. I need to keep something for myself. Be selfish about that. I will just keep it the way it is. For me. »
Has she ever thought about living in the house herself? « Oh, I couldn’t do that. It’s too heavy emotionally. » It transpires, though, that she lives just a few streets away from her father’s house. She visits it regularly. What, I ask, feeling slightly guilty, does she do there? « I just sit there, really. I can’t go to the cemetery because it is too public and there are always people around. It’s really the only place I can be alone with my memories of him. » She pauses for a moment, then says, « In a weird way, the house is very alive, he’s very present there. »
I ask her, maybe a little unkindly, what a psychologist would make of all this? « God knows, » she says, laughing. « I don’t even want to think about it. » Her father clearly still occupies a big space in her life. « He does, » she says quietly, « an enormous place. At the beginning, it was like my legs were cut off and that feeling lasted for a long time. It was only with my children that I could begin to move on. My husband has been very patient. Now, it has been 18 years and it’s still very, very difficult. And, I’m an adult. » I realise I am interrogating someone who is still in grief. « I miss him a lot, » she says, « but now that I have had half my life with him, and half without, maybe I will be able to grow up a little bit and move on. »
For all that, Charlotte Gainsbourg, at 38, seems remarkably content, and continues to work at her own speed and on her own terms. She is thinking tentatively about touring to promote her new album. « I keep thinking, I didn’t write the songs, I don’t play an instrument, I’m not an extrovert performer, so why would people come? What would they see? »
She has made two films in the past year, Persecution, another drama about a troubled relationship, directed by Patrice Chéreau, and The Tree, an Australian film about family grief, based on the novel Our Father Who Art in a Tree, by Judy Pascoe. « I’m always dissatisfied, » she says, in conclusion. « Always. Not so much with the work, more with myself. I have so many doubts that they constantly pull me down but now I can see that this is my way of working. The self-questioning is my method. I’ve realised that I like being unbalanced. I like feeling insecure. To be able to do one take and be crap and then another and be great, that’s the rollercoaster I like. »