The daughter of French singer-provocateur Serge Gainsbourg and Swinging London icon Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg was born to fame, but her career path hasn’t been a straight line. At the age of 12, she dueted with her father on “Lemon Incest,” a proclamation of paternal devotion whose ambiguous lyrics and semi-clad video prompted public outcry. She quickly followed it in 1986 with the album Charlotte For Ever, but it took two decades for her next album, 5:55, to arrive. She started young as an actress as well, playing the lead in 1988’s The Little Thief and an incestuous sibling in 1993’s The Cement Garden, directed by her uncle, Andrew Birkin. Her subsequent filmography is sporadic in quantity as well as quality. The last few years, however, have seen a succession of creative highs in both music and film. As the sorrowful lover to Heath Ledger’s Bob Dylan doppelgänger, she added emotional weight and welcome simplicity to I’m Not There. She provided the few moments of calm in the frenetic The Science Of Sleep, and played a version of herself in the charming My Wife Is An Actress, directed by her husband, Yvan Attal. Her performance as a grieving mother turned shovel-wielding psychotic in Lars von Trier’s nerve-jangling Antichrist is an astonishing feat that bares her soul as well as her body.
Gainsbourg’s Beck-produced album IRM, due in January, promises to go even deeper. Inspired by a 2007 accident that left her with a blood clot in her brain (the title is French for MRI), the hypnotic title track features clanking, metallic beats and lyrics about “the X-ray eye.” Currently shooting in Australia, Gainsbourg recently talked to The A.V. Club about stepping in for Eva Green, working with the “strange man” Lars von Trier, and why she’d rather have someone else in control.
The A.V. Club: It’s hard to imagine how Lars von Trier would approach an actor with material like this. How did he describe it to you?
Charlotte Gainsbourg: Well, the first meeting with Lars was, I found, quite bizarre. First of all, I heard about this film maybe six months before, and then nothing happened, so I guess he had chosen an actress [Eva Green]. And then, apparently, he had a problem with this actress, and so he was in a hurry to find someone. So I read the script, being on vacation in the south of France. I loved it. Loved it in a very… oh, I can’t find my words in English now… you know, not really understanding everything. It was just, instinctively, I loved it. My agent asked me, “If you like it, do you want to go into Denmark to meet him?” So I rushed off to Denmark and sat with him, but we didn’t have much to say, and I had this strange man in front of me that was shaking a lot and seemed very, very fragile, and quite agitated. I thought, even though I’m not that calm myself, and perfectly well in my head, I showed him that I was very, very sane, and that I didn’t have any problems. He asked me if I had experienced panic attacks, or if I had any fears. I just said, “No, I’ve got nothing wrong.” I was even going too far that way, I don’t know why. It was maybe just a reaction.
Everyone knew that I was going to meet him. I told them, “Well, I know, I don’t think I’ll get the part. It was just weird, we didn’t say much.” And a week later, he offered me the part, so I was very, very surprised. I still don’t know why he chose me—I mean, what he knew of me, because we never talked about my past being an actress. But I think it helped for the whole atmosphere of the film and the shoot. I felt completely isolated, and very, very anonymous, the way that the character is completely anonymous. She doesn’t have a name, she doesn’t really have a background, and that wasn’t the important thing in the film.
AVC: You mentioned not being “perfectly well in the head,” and you did have brain surgery in 2007.
CG: I had, and I could have gone very far that way just to show him that I had problems, intense problems. I don’t know why I didn’t want to share this. But I think it helped me to get this film and to have this experience, helped me a lot after what I had been through, because I didn’t work for that whole year after my accident. I was in a terrible state, I mean mental status, just being scared. Scared about myself, which had never happened before. Which is exactly what the movie’s about.
AVC: Von Trier has talked about the severe depression he experienced over the last several years, and in some ways, the movie replicates that ordeal. Just watching it is harrowing.
CG: Completely. That’s why when he had all those attacks of him being misogynistic and having all this hatred against women, I really think it’s not at all the purpose of the film. The subtext is not there. I was feeling that I was playing him. There was a real complicity, not talking much; the communication was elsewhere, but there was something that linked us, just me playing that character.
AVC: The movie explicitly links sex and guilt, beginning with the fact that the couple’s child falls to his death while they’re having sex. For your character, that equation becomes a form of psychosis, to the extent that she attacks her own sexual organs. Did you have concerns with that aspect of the film, where it’s very specifically linking female sexuality to violence and insanity?
CG: No, I think it’s… for me, I understood this guilt, and the grieving that’s too intense to cope with. So for me, she was just going into a mental illness that wasn’t curable, and she was just going as far as she could to hurt herself.
AVC: Von Trier generally doesn’t like to rehearse, and Willem Dafoe said that for a lot of these scenes, you essentially went into them cold. That seems like a terrifying thing to do.
CG: It was. I think we had a few days altogether discussing the script before we started shooting, but not a lot did happen in those rehearsals, because the scenes were so intense and dramatic that you couldn’t really rehearse the emotions. So there wasn’t really much to do. Going into the shoot, yes, I was surprised that we would just arrive in the morning, and he’d say, “Okay.” Even for the DP, nothing was rehearsed, so he didn’t know where to go, where the cameras should be, what to do, really, with a scene, but we just dived in. That’s the way [von Trier] wanted it: to try things out, and then, after that, orient things his way, and try to articulate things differently. Always, the first take was awful, and I felt ridiculous, but I think I needed to go that far in the ridiculous point of… I don’t know, to try different things.
That’s his way of working, and it’s incredible to experience, because he makes you do the scene with the dialogue, then with no dialogue, then inventing your own, then just trying to do the whole thing crying, and then, I don’t know, with different, very opposite feelings. And then a lot of the film is really done in the editing room, and that’s what he said after the first day’s work. I didn’t know what to think, because we had done it in such different ways. Usually, you try and aim for something, and try and get back there, and then once you think you’ve done it, then you go for another scene. But with Lars, it was completely different. At the end, I didn’t know if he had what he wanted. Everything was mixed up. And he said, “That’s my way of shooting. I know it’s very frustrating for actors, but I just want to get moments that then I’ll play with.” So I understood that, and after a while, I was just trying everything. I know that he was also aiming for little accidents of moments of truth. Inside a whole scene shot in sequence, he would only take 10 seconds of it, and mix it up with something completely different afterward.
AVC: The movies you’ve done recently, like I’m Not There and The Science Of Sleep, are open to a wide variety of interpretations. Do you have to understand a movie fully to take part in it?
CG: No, I don’t. And I understood this, especially with this film. I had many questions that are still unanswered, but he didn’t want to answer, and he didn’t want to give me all the clues, especially all the religious references. I didn’t think I got everything, and I needed him to tell me more, but he was just not willing to go that way. He would always say, “Oh, well, I don’t know why I wrote this, it’s quite bad.” And after a while, I realized that I didn’t need to know much more about it—because I trusted him, also. That was the main thing. The character didn’t need to understand the whole thing.
I don’t know why I trusted him that much and that easily. I think I admired him very, very much, and in the end, I admired the process of how we were making this, and I just needed to let go, and in order to let go, I had to trust him. I couldn’t have done it, especially all the nude scenes and sexual things. I felt that he wasn’t going to, how do you say, trahir?
CG: He wasn’t going to betray me. After a scene being naked, I went to him and said, “Did you see, was the angle of the camera okay? Did you see things that I’ll be ashamed of?” And he just said, “You have to trust me. I will never edit something that you’re ashamed of, or that you don’t want to show.” I just had to have a complete trust in him.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine a logical explanation for some of the things she does. They make sense within the context of her psychosis, but it’s not something you could explain to a sane person.
CG: For me, it’s just going into that craziness, mental illness of not being conscious. She was already gone—with moments of coming back, but the scene with the tree was certainly a trance. I understood it that way. The thing is, he wanted it to be beautiful. It’s very obscene and very straightforward and not pornographic, but nearly. But I knew that, for him, he just had this aesthetic vision of it mixed with crudity, and I thought the idea was beautiful. I didn’t feel ashamed. I knew what the scene was, and so I was getting in my head prepared for that, and the first take I did was very slow and… not pleasurable, but trying to, well, what I imagined masturbation was. And at the end of the take, he said, “Well, no, that’s not really it. Could you do it faster?” [Laughs.] And so I could see that the vision that I had had of that scene wasn’t at all his vision, and so I just had to do it in a trance-like, excessive, and much more nervous and unstable way.
AVC: Looking at your career, in music as well, it seems as if you like to have a strong collaborator on the other side, rather than just knowing what you want going in, and having someone else help you get what you already want. Is that true?
CG: You mean, not to be too much in control?
AVC: If you like. Or to have someone pushing back against you.
CG: Yeah, I can’t do things by myself. I need a motivation, and the motivation is always the director’s. I find my freedom inside other people’s barriers. It’s easier for me to find myself inside someone else’s tracks.
AVC: That is, traditionally, an actor’s role. Is that true of the records you’ve made as well. There, it’s your name above the title, and not Lars von Trier’s.
CG: I get the impression that with albums, it is much more personal, in the way that I do talk about what I want to talk about, the subjects are mine. Even though for the last record, Beck wrote the whole thing, but he wrote it with me, because I was there from the start. With a film, it’s completely different. You go with the script that’s already written. And I’ve never thought of a project, a film that would come from my own desire. I don’t think I can do it. I need someone else’s desire to be able to do something. With a record, it is completely different, it’s a collaboration with another artist, but I’m willing to go into intimate places with no masks on.
AVC: On the title tack of IRM, you talk about your mind being magnetically erased like a tape. That sense of things being peeled away by machinery, and being X-rayed and seen, seems to be what’s going on in the song.
CG: Yes, because that was my first input on the idea of a new album—when I had to go through all those MRIs, it became music to me. I know it’s very weird sounds, quite disturbing sounds, but I could hear, inside them, a music, and that’s what I wanted to do, because it was also so personal. I had to touch what was, at the time, the most personal, and the most intimate. And that experience was, for me, something I could be very truthful to, and that I wanted to talk about. I thought it was a great subject to be able to talk about, yeah, entering the mind and the memory, and of course, life and death. It gave a lot of possibilities.
AVC: Did that go for the rest of the album as well, and not just that song?
CG: I think all the songs tend to talk about… His way of writing is really put into images. It’s like mini-sequences of films, and that was very interesting for me. He had a lot of references to American culture that I wasn’t familiar with, but it was great to be able to go there with my own personality, with my English accent, and my French culture, and get into his culture and his world. As a foreigner, that was very, very interesting.
AVC: Does that go for the music as well as the cultural references?
CG: For me, it’s more difficult to track references inside music. He has such an extraordinary musical culture. It’s really incredible. He’s able to go anywhere, to do any style, so we tried a bit of everything. That was the fun part of it, to try a blues song, and then go into a sort of punkish rhythm, and then African beats. Each song was sounding very, very different, and then as a whole, they all link to one another. It’s not like it was a weird patchwork. It had some meaning.
AVC: 5:55 works that way as well.
CG: We had a principal theme, and they all articulated around it. Yeah, I like this idea.
AVC: There was a 20-year gap between your first album, Charlotte For Ever, which was released in 1986, and your second album. What brought you back to music after all that time?
CG: You mean after the album with my father, and then the album with Air? Well, I didn’t think of myself as a singer, and I still don’t, although I started doing “Lemon Incest” when I was 12, and I did my first movie at the same time, the same summer. A few years later, my father did this whole album for me, and then I was more attracted to film. It was, I felt, more comfortable. It was my own space, and my father died, and then I felt that I had no link to music. Of course, I play the piano, and I love music, but it wasn’t… do you say “legitimate”? I didn’t feel it was legitimate for me to do something else without him. So it took me years and years to feel that. Deep inside, I did want to try something again, and meeting Air just made it all possible. I did have little things going on, like singing on the ending sequence of a film, and then doing television with my mother, and singing one of her songs. So it’s not like I completely stopped and nothing did happen during all those years, but I didn’t feel it could be mine.
AVC: One of your first acting roles was in Agnès Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! [a.k.a. Le Petit Amour], which your mother wrote.
CG: I’ve never seen that film. It’s so, so far away that I just remember being that teenager. I knew Varda was shooting sort of a documentary on my mother. I think it was called Jane B. By Agnès V. And during that shoot, my mother came up with that story she wanted to do. So it was very spontaneous, and it didn’t take a very long time to do, but the whole experience was… I didn’t like it. Not Kung-Fu Master!, but the whole experience of living with Agnès Varda at the time. She sort of camped in our living room, and there was a whole cinema crew that lived with us for a year, and it was just horrible. Being a teenager, I wanted to shut myself off in my room, so that’s all I can remember. Now, of course, I love Agnès, and she’s a very sweet woman, but I didn’t have that awareness of what I was doing.