Movie chat: Charlotte Gainsbourg (Interview, San Francisco Chronicle)


By Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, October 23, 2009

The new Lars Von Trier film « Antichrist » was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and yet its star, Charlotte Gainsbourg, won that festival’s best actress prize. That seems like an odd combination of events until you’ve seen the film, which is revolting in places, yet provides Gainsbourg with a great acting opportunity, playing a woman grieving over the accidental death of her son. The character also happens to be a scholar of the supernatural – a preoccupation that does not mix well with grief.

Gainsbourg, 38, mainly works in France, but her perfect English has given her an international career (« Golden Door, » « I’m Not There, » « 21 Grams »). « Antichrist » is the first film she made following surgery in 2007 for a life threatening brain hemorrhage, the result of a water-skiing accident. She spoke by phone from Australia, where she’s making a movie.

Q: I think a lot of people are going to see « Antichrist » as a deliberate provocation.

A: I hope not, because I don’t think it’s the case. There is a part provocation, of course, but I find (von Trier) very honest in what he tries to say. I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a part that tries to get me into such intense emotions for such a long time, for a whole film. On the balance, all the naked things and the sex scenes were nothing compared to the grieving scenes.

Q: As a critic and also as a watcher of movies, you don’t want to be naïve or provincial, but at the same time, I found myself toward the end of the film getting angry at the director. Why does he have you doing this masturbating scene – it’s totally shocking – it’s like why is he DOING that – ?

A: (laughing)

Q: I don’t know why I should be worried on your behalf – but it’s like why is he making her do this?

A: I think it goes with the stream of the film, and the flow of the film, and her craziness, because for me, I had to understand it that way, that she couldn’t cope with her grief, and she was just going into mental illness.

Q: Probably the smartest way to the role, if you have to act it, is to do it that the woman is grief-stricken and then begins to go off some mental deep end, rather than that she’s in the grip of something supernatural. Is that what you did?

A: Oh, yes, for me that was the only way I could explain where she was going. I couldn’t deal with the supernatural elements of the film. My understanding was that it was just craziness.

Q: Because otherwise, if you played the supernatural thing, then the woman isn’t crazy, she’s actually evil. And then if she’s evil, she probably intentionally caused her son’s death and then isn’t really in grief. It destroys the movie.

A: Yeah. But that is also her understanding of what could be an explanation – she does think of herself as evil.

Q: Oh, that’s good.

A: I had to get there. And I didn’t excuse myself – I didn’t want to find excuses for her, because my understanding was that I was evil, because I was the character.

Q: I notice that, in your French roles, when you play someone who has to speak English, you do a French accent that you really don’t have.

A: I always feel ridiculous, because it’s like trying to be Inspector Clouseau. I have this voice in my head thinking I’m going really over the top.

Q: Are you fully recovered from your brain hemorrhage two years ago?

A: Oh, God, it was awful. Yeah, I’m fully recovered. It took me a very long time. I had a whole year of nothing. I felt terrible. I couldn’t really get out of the country, because they were worried about pressure on air flights and all that.

So I felt completely reclusive and quite terrified about my own health, which had never happened before. I was never scared of dying or whatever. It made me so fearful and very, very fragile.

So I think when I got this opportunity to work with Lars the next summer, it was so liberating just to dive into this project, and I think it helped me a great, great deal.

Q: In other words, to do something that was completely fearless helped you get over the fear that had entered your life following the accident?

A: Yes, completely.

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