Charlotte Gainsbourg: A French affair

In her native land, Charlotte Gainsbourg is royalty, the daughter of the nation's beloved laureate Serge and his English muse Jane Birkin. James Mottram talks to her about movies, music and her famous family
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The Independent Online

There are two types of interviewees you dread. The first are the arrogant intellectual types, who believe the very fact that they have graced you with their presence means they have no need to answer your tedious questions. The others are the shy, retiring ones, who make you feel like a dentist extracting a wisdom tooth for simply asking them how to spell their last name. From what I've been led to believe, Charlotte Gainsbourg falls into this latter category. As reputedly impenetrable as she is awkward - she once openly admitted that she gives interviewers "a hard time" - she is known to retreat into her shell at the merest hint of any personal enquiry. "It's not just that I have never met a more private actor," noted her uncle, the film director Andrew Birkin. "I have never met a more private person. With Charlotte you feel you are trespassing if you get too close."

To be fair, it can't be easy being the daughter of the English actress Jane Birkin and the late French songwriter-cum-provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, the couple best known in Britain for their 1969 hit, "Je t'aime ... moi non plus". When her mother was pictured six-months pregnant with Charlotte in the papers, it was the first of many intrusions upon her life, partly orchestrated by her family. If having your godfather Yul Brynner take the first snaps of you as a babe-in-arms is not so stressful, enduring your father's drunken behaviour on national television as a teenager was. From burning a 500 Franc note to protest against the level of taxation - an incident that led to Charlotte being picked on at school, as a gang of kids set fire to her books - to offering sex to fellow chat-show guest Whitney Houston, Gainsbourg Senior never possessed his daughter's innate modesty. Such antics evidently left a mark on her feelings towards self-promotion. "It's much easier now," she assures me. "I'm less nervous about interviews, and all the side things you have to do." She watches me for a second, to gauge my reaction. "I think I cope with it better now."

She does. Like the petals of a flower unfurling in the sun, the 34-year-old Gainsbourg is gradually exposing herself to the glare of the media - but on her own terms. Gone are the days when she threatened legal action against a magazine for daring to print a picture of her in the same room as her partner, the actor/director Yvan Attal, whom she met on the 1990 film Autobus. As mother to their eight-year-old son, Ben, and three-year-old daughter, Alice, Gainsbourg has been mellowed by parenthood - to the point where she even allowed a French magazine to print three of her charcoal sketches of Ben. Now, when I ask her how intimidating it was to play Sean Penn's wife in 2003 film 21 Grams, she relates to the experience not as an actress but as a mother. "I'd just had my baby, and I was in a very maternal mode. I was breast-feeding at the time, and it was very complicated. Maybe it took some fear away because of having to be focused on my baby." She even admits to problems juggling her maternal and professional duties. "It's starting to get difficult now because I'm working more."

This year sees the release of two major European films in which she stars: Lemming, which pits her opposite Charlotte Rampling, and The Science of Sleep, directed by Michel Gondry, who made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And, assuming she recovers from a recent back injury sustained from a snowboarding accident, she is also set to film I'm Not There, US director Todd Haynes' much-anticipated film about Bob Dylan, co-starring Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore and Christian Bale. Frequently dubbed the best actress of her generation in France, it seems Betrand Blier was right. The French director who cast her in 1991's Merci la Vie noted, "You ignore Charlotte Gainsbourg at your peril. Because one day she's going to explode in all our faces." But is she finally courting the limelight? "No, no," she denies, hastily. "It just happens. It's a good time now. I'm doing things that I really enjoy and are very exciting."

When we meet, on a hotel terrace covered in wooden decking overlooking the French Riviera, she is attempting to appear as English as possible. On the table in front of her is a quaint matching blue-and-white striped teapot and mug, a symbolic reminder that her Anglo-origins have not entirely been swallowed up by a lifetime living in Paris. As flawless as her English is - spoken without a trace of a French accent - her delivery is deliberate and methodical. "I have problems with words sometimes," she says, flattening out her vowels as if she's still taking elocution lessons at the Swiss boarding school where she spent her teenage years after her parents' divorce in 1980.

Today wearing jeans and a black jumper, drawn tight to her tiny waist by a thick leather belt, it's not hard to see why Gainsbourg believes she is a democratic combination of her parents' genes. The long-but-lank brown hair and svelte physique she takes from her mother; the ungainly nose, bushy eyebrows and pert lips are all her father's. "I certainly don't have the typical Hollywood face," she says, instead f radiating a gawky, down-to-earth beauty. With the barest hint of make-up covering her ghost-white skin, she is no pouting model, though in fact is remarkably photogenic. Check out her official website (charlottegainsbourg.net) with its gallery of photos - admittedly taken by such renowned snappers as Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz - dragging out the wild-child that remains, for the most part, dormant in her. The most revealing set comes from an Elle shoot taken by Kate Barry, her older half-sister (the offspring of a young Birkin's marriage to John Barry, composer of James Bond soundtracks), with whom she was raised. Attainable yet aloof, it says it all about Gainsbourg.

Or as John Malkovich once noted, she should play Hamlet. "She has this thing where you don't know exactly what's going on in her head," adds Michel Gondry, who casts her as a literal girl-next-door in The Science of Sleep. "At the same time, she can be really reassuring. She's not only fragile or enigmatic. She has this thing that makes you feel good." In the film, a thoroughly imaginative work that delves into dreams as much as daily-life, she plays Stephanie, neighbour to a young student named Stephane (Gael García Bernal) who moves in to her Parisian block to fall head-over-heels for her. "I love the character," she exclaims. "I think it's very personal to Michel - he's a very complicated guy. I think it's close to the screenwriter who wrote for him before - what's his name?" Charlie Kaufman - writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - I tell her. She clicks her fingers and points to me. "He didn't write this one but it's close."

Dominik Moll's Lemming deals more with matters of the subconscious. Gainsbourg plays Benedicte, wife of brilliant young engineer Alain (Laurent Lucas). A model couple, their lives begin to unravel after they host a disastrous dinner party that sees the bitter wife (Rampling) of Alain's boss openly accuse him of infidelity. To give any more away will spoil the manifold pleasure of what is an intriguing and ambiguous film. "Reading it, it was strange and frightening," says Gainsbourg. "That's what I loved about it. So I was really willing to do it." Being cast opposite Rampling was a particular thrill. "For me, she makes me think about my mother because it's a bit the same," says Gainsbourg. "They were adopted by France, loved by French people so much."

Gainsbourg made her own screen début when she was just 12, playing Catherine Deneuve's difficult daughter, in Paroles et musique. Given her aversion to fame, acting was not at the top of her to-do list at the time. "When I remember those years, I can't say I was really willing to be an actress," she says. "The pleasure came while I was doing it." After her mother introduced her to the director to assist her in winning the role, I wonder if she was ever concerned over accusations of nepotism. "No, it was more to do with the media and interviews," she replies, meandering from the point. "They were always talking to me about my parents and, for me, it was tough just having to explain things and talk about them all the time - and less about my work. So that was, maybe, a difficult part." What, then, were the difficulties of dealing with famous parents? "Admiring them too much, on my side, can make you suffocate a bit," she replies. "At the same time it's wonderful to have parents that you admire this much."

After winning a César - the French equivalent of an Oscar - for Most Promising Actress, for another troubled teen in Claude Miller's 1985 film L'Effrontée, Gainsbourg ran into a series of problems that made most adolescent growing pains look distinctly anodyne. She became world news twice in the space of a year; firstly after police foiled a plot by upper-class students to kidnap her. "I found that more amusing than anything else," she giggles. Yet her reaction to the second event is less convincing. In 1986, her father directed her in a film about incest entitled Charlotte Forever - the third character named Charlotte of her then-brief career. The sight of her lolling around on a bed with him caused a scandal in his homeland, as did the video he shot for a song they recorded around the same time called "Lemon Zest" (a pun on "incest"), in which they were both scantily clad - again on a bed. Gainsbourg later went on to make her English-language début in the 1993 adaptation of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden - directed by her uncle - in which she played the older sister in an incestuous relationship.

Understandably, Gainsbourg is rather bored of the topic by now. No, she says, she did not feel manipulated by her father as a youngster. Neither did she feel she was being groomed for stardom. With three half-brothers courtesy of her father and two half-sisters (Kate and Lou, from Birkin's subsequent marriage to the director Jacques Doillon), why this obsession with incest? "I understood the subject," she says, "and it seemed normal to me ... that people have desires." Ironically, the more Gainsbourg recoiled from the spotlight, the more controversial characters she took on. She was La Petite Voleuse in Claude Miller's 1988 film, adding adultery and GBH to her list of felonies. Then there was Merci la Vie, in which she played the naïve schoolgirl led astray to commit arson and assault, while in the Taviani Brothers' Night Sun, she seduced a priest.

Despite her early experience on "Lemon Zest", Gainsbourg has continued with her music career undeterred. She sang the title track to the 1996 love-triangle comedy Love, etc, which cast her opposite Attal for the third time. More recently, she recorded "If" as a duet with Etienne Daho, the one-time king of French pop who has been compared with her father on numerous occasions. And last year, she collaborated with Nicolas Godin and J B Dunckel - or Air as they are better known - on their long-awaited new album. "It was magical for me to go back in the studio, even though I've never made a career in singing," says Gainsbourg. "It was all very familiar - the studio, the music. It was like going back to something I treasured. And it was nice to do something that has nothing to do with cinema."

Would she ever consider composing music herself? "No. And I realised that being in a studio around people that did only music, and could compose and invent stuff, that I was very limited. And that I had no talent to write music, write lyrics. Also having my father in my mind is very hard for me constantly. When the lyrics are French, I think about him all the time. It's very hard not to devalue what I'm doing because of what I think of him." Does she still see him as the father of French pop? "I think he is," she says, a little taken aback. "I hope he is. Yes." Admitting that Air reinvigorated the whole pop scene in her homeland, she claims Serge's influence still lingers on. "There's something of him there. But maybe it's me! I see him everywhere!" After he died of a heart attack in 1991, for years Gainsbourg refused to turn on the radio in case she heard one of his songs. She kept a Paris flat around the corner from the house he lived in on the rue de Verneuil, which she preserved intact in the hope of turning it into a museum.

She is set to return to the late-Sixties music scene for Todd Haynes' Dylan project. Subtitled "Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan", it sees five men and women of different ages playing "different aspects", as she puts it, of his character. Gainsbourg has been cast as one of his wives. "I tried to see who she really was in real life, and it's a mix between two women." Did she solicit the opinion of her mother on this one? "We've never talked about choosing parts," she says, bluntly. "But sometimes I'd ask her to read scripts I wasn't sure about." So you've never really questioned her about the profession? "Not asking her tips, no ... more with general mother-daughter stuff - having children, bringing them on the set. The more practical stuff." And with that, the quietly self-assured Gainsbourg shakes my hand and heads off to give another hack a hard time.

'Lemming' is out on limited release; 'The Science of Sleep' is released on 28 July

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