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For her latest film, the hit comedy Prête-Moi Ta Main, she has been nominated, a third time, for a Best Actress César (the equivalent of an Oscar). At 15, she had already appeared in two films and won a César for Most Promising Actress in Claude Miller’s L’Effrontée, a story about blossoming teenage sexuality; at 22, her uncle, Andrew Birkin, chose her to play Julie in his adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, about four children whose parents die and whose two older siblings, Jack and Julie, assume the role of parents (yes, including consummation) to the little ones. In 1996, Franco Zeffirelli cast her as Jane Eyre opposite William Hurt. Charlotte has made movies with her longtime live-in partner, Yvan Attal (with whom she has two children), who wrote and directed two semi-biographical comedies in which the two both star: My Wife Is an Actress and They Lived Happily Ever After. Her role as the obscure object of desire has carried her appeal overseas: She appeared in Alejandro González Iñárrittu’s 21 Grams, Dominik Moll’s Lemming and Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. She just wrapped Todd Haynes’s new film, a Bob Dylan biopic entitled I’m Not There, in which she stars as Dylan’s wife opposite Heath Ledger.
Despite her steady output, Charlotte is famously private and discreet — she is not a socialite (« I like not being trendy, not really knowing what’s happening, » she says). A perfect composite of both her parents’ standout qualities, she exudes the androgynous femininity of her mother and the intelligence of her father. Her voice is soft and childlike; she is reticent and shy; her eyes dart all around a crowded room, but she smiles constantly and will speak her mind. At the PAPER photo shoot, between lighting changes, she would stand confidently alone, smoking a cigarette, and when the stylist gave her clothes to try on, she did not use a mirror. Considering this atypical allure and unaffected nature, it is easy to see why she has played muse to fashion designers (such as Balenciaga), musicians and, in particular, film directors.
With 5:55 set for U.S. release this month, Charlotte’s status in the music world is shaky. In France, where she is a beloved icon, some of her harsher critics have dismissed her efforts as bland, her voice lacking Jane Birkin’s breadth of emotion, and have damned the music as « Gainsbourgeois. » Because of her shyness, Charlotte rarely performs. She did one performance in France (« I did a live television show. It was dreadful. Well, the TV show was all right »). On the other hand, this self-effacing quality may be one of her most captivating assets. As an actress, it sharpens her intuition. Iñárrittu does not believe that her demeanor comes from insecurity. « She’s observant, very subtle [and] very elegant, » he explains. « She has a presence that, five minutes after you see her — while you are thinking about what kind of beauty she is — you already are in love with her. She is like a perfume. » He adds, « The economy of movement is her thing. She doesn’t move one finger more than she needs. » Gondry says that the fact that she was able to break away from such a famous family and succeed so young was a major achievement, referencing L’Effrontée as a landmark moment. « How old was she, maybe thirteen? » he says. « She defined this age in a very unique way. Every age she went through, she defined [with] the edge of her personality. » Her continued success, he feels, is due to the fact that she manages to reveal the outcast in everyone, without trying hard. « It feels right because she is always natural. » On set, he says, she never questioned his direction: « She would just do it and brought a lot of humanity into it. »
Charlotte is clearly more comfortable when a director connects with her and sails the ship; however, she protests, « I wish I was able not to rely on instincts all the time. [I have] an inferiority complex with people who have been to theater school. It’s difficult to have the courage to say, ‘I believe I’ll be good in this.’ It’s very easy to rely on a director. »
For Todd Haynes, Charlotte came to mind as a personality as well as an actress while he was writing the script for I’m Not There. The film is divided into panoramas of Bob Dylan’s life, and Charlotte plays a combination of Sarah Dylan and Susie Rotolo, becoming at once a symbol of Dylan’s most famous women and « the female object of desire and conflict, [which] reverberates throughout the rest of the film, » says Haynes. « The women who seemed to hold [Dylan’s] imagination and his desire the most over the years were people who were a little removed and had a kind of, if not mystical, a kind of personality [wherein] they felt separate from the huge demand, politics and pressures of being a celebrity, who sort of stood outside it and had an integrity and worldview of [their] own. And, » he continues, Charlotte represents « someone who, in some way, kind of connotes that era. »
Legendary actress Charlotte Rampling, with whom Charlotte starred in Lemming, felt a close tie with her in terms of being singled out at a very young age: « I felt very protective towards Charlotte, in the fact that she could be my daughter. You feel you know the journey people have been on, when you’ve been on a bit of the same one. »
All of France knew who Charlotte was before she was even born. Her parents were the most famous couple in the country. Not a week would pass without a mention of Serge or Jane in the tabloids, especially after the release of their infamous duet « Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus. » Theirs was an unlikely union — Jane was a gorgeous British actress almost twenty years younger than Serge, a rabble-rouser who made his name on the Left Bank singing misogynist vignettes in cabaret clubs before conducting a highly publicized affair with Brigitte Bardot. Charlotte’s childhood was charmed: doting parents, summers in the French countryside, Christmas in London, Paris year-round. At 13, she recorded a song with her father called « Lemon Incest, » a taboo-probing Chopin-influenced ditty about the pure love between a father and his daughter. The music video showed them lying half-naked on a bed together. For those who thought Serge and Jane were disgraceful libertines, this did nothing to improve their image. Rumors of real incest swirled. Fans championed the song as radical. A year later, Serge wrote the album Charlotte for Ever to accompany the film of the same name that he wrote, directed and starred in with Charlotte. (She sings, « You are the love of my life. » He replies, « Without you, I am nothing. ») Serge’s critics were outraged once more, but Charlotte was tucked away in Switzerland at boarding school (at her request) and missed all the hoopla. Then Serge died when Charlotte was 19. Until now, she says, « I really thought I would never do anything without him, that he was the only reason why I could do something in music, and so there was no point. »
Deep down, the idea of making music never really went away. A few years ago, an impulse to actually record something began to surface. « I didn’t know how, I didn’t know with who, » she says. « I didn’t feel I was a musician, so I didn’t have all the tools to do something. But the idea was becoming more and more present. » When she met Air, she just knew. « I just wanted us to do something together. And I thought it was possible with them, and [that] their music and my voice could match well. » Coincidentally, Nigel Godrich (who has worked with Radiohead, Beck and Paul McCartney) had unknowingly suggested Charlotte’s voice to Air for a song remix. Charlotte was intent on being present for the entire creation of the record, which took place in a studio in Paris. While she had a good idea of the themes and feelings she wanted to capture, she was nervous. Not only did she not consider herself a musician, but she was completely on her own: « The experience I had with my father singing, I was directed. He did everything for me. And for this first time, I had to direct myself and decide what I wanted to sound like, how I wanted to sing these songs and be really the one behind [it]. » She turned to Godrich for help, but he rebuffed her, saying that this was her project, her challenge. « I really had questions about the lyrics from the very start, » she says. « I said to Air, ‘For me, it’s as important as the music.’ And they said, ‘For us, it’s less important. The music comes first.’ So we tried to write some of the songs — I tried to write in English and in French, and they wrote some of them — but I really felt after a while I needed an author. Someone that would be as strong as they were in the music. » So Godrich called Charlotte’s favorite lyricist, Jarvis Cocker, for help.
As most Serge fans might have observed by now, Charlotte recruited three musicians whose sound and style would not exist without the strong influence of her father. Cocker’s British-ized ennui, penchant for scandal and bitingly observant songs are unavoidably Gainsbourien; Air’s pretty-boy, cinematic, ’70s-inspired compositions recall the singular arrangements of Jean-Claude Vannier, who worked with Serge on his concept album Melody Nelson. But when they congregated, no one mentioned Serge. « It was always, like, not a secret subject, but they were all very discreet about my father, because it was such a big deal for me, » Charlotte says. « And my father was so present during all that recording and thinking about the album. I didn’t want to sing in French because it reminded me too much of his songs, and I felt that I couldn’t compare. It was really too heavy. Because it was that heavy, it was very discreet. I was always the one who was bringing him up and talking about him. » Oddly enough, Melody Nelson, her favorite Serge record (recorded when Jane was pregnant with Charlotte) was constantly on her mind throughout the process. « The ‘concept album’ is a little pretentious for me, » she admits, « but it was the idea. I wanted something that would be part of the same story, and I did want to tell a story at the beginning. » The album possesses that same magnetism that is unmistakably Charlotte’s. She and Air came up with nighttime as the theme. « [It] gave us a purpose to go into dreams and all those different subjects of introspection, something a bit unreal that was all very coherent. I felt those were all very intimate subjects that I felt very close to, » she says.
Despite the anxiety of being compared to her father, one thing made Charlotte happy: « In the words, I didn’t want to have any reference to his songs. I wanted to feel completely free about that. Although in the music, I was very proud as soon as I heard a bass that resembled one of his songs, or the violins in The Songs That We Sing [her first single] that are very obviously close to Initials B.B. [her father’s ode to Brigitte Bardot]. I was very happy about that. It was like small tributes that I felt good about. »
Styling by Christine de Lassus at Frank Management * Hair by Hallie Bowman at thewallgroup.com using Bumble and bumble. * Makeup by Rebecca Restrepo at thewallgroup.com * Special thanks to iO, Monica LoCascio and Kait Howard