Oyster #98: Charlotte Gainsbourg
"That's the only thing I can do ... be as close to me as I can in the moment."
When you have a 30-minute window with someone of Charlotte Gainsbourg's stature, you need to make every second count. Actress, singer and Balenciaga muse that she is, she is also the daughter of two incredible pop-culture icons: Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. That's not just genetics, that's a legacy. For Oyster #98, we spoke to Charlotte about what it was like having Serge as a father, how she has struggled to let him go, and what she hopes to be remembered for.
I’m on hold. This is the third time I’ve tried to interview Charlotte Gainsbourg for this issue. The first time the scheduled call didn’t happen at all, and the second time I was on hold for 14 minutes and 22 seconds with no result. The anticipation is making me lose my cool. My palms are sweaty and I am talking to myself.
To be fair I am just practicing my questions out loud, but now — after seven minutes and 15 seconds of waiting — I’ve also starting answering myself as though I were Charlotte. It’s hard to get her voice right — that British inflection with the French hesitation — plus the hold music is very distracting. It’s like the soundtrack of an eighties sexual thriller starring Mickey Rourke. (And yes, this is exactly my train of thought at this time. I know because I took notes.)
It’s 8 am in Berlin where Charlotte is, so she can be forgiven for the delay — but given our history I can’t help but wonder if there’s a diva hidden behind her soft gaze. Just as I’m indulging in the notion of Charlotte Gainsbourg throwing a tantrum about her hotel sheets being of an inferior thread-count, we are finally connected and the sweetness in her voice brings my mile-a-minute delusions crashing down. “Hello Alice. How are you?”
Charlotte has recently released her fourth album, Stage Whisper, which is why we are talking. It’s the second album she has done with Beck, and prior to that she has worked with Air, Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich and, of course, her father, who produced her debut album (Charlotte for Ever) in 1986. Growing up with Serge no doubt had a huge influence on her own sound, and I wonder if he gave her instruction from a young age. “No, not at all,” she says simply. “I remember I wanted to play the piano, but he didn’t want me to play an instrument. I wanted to play the violin, so my mother gave me a violin and he threw it away … Starting the violin is very hard on others.”
Although Serge wasn’t interested in listening to the screechy attempts of a beginner violinist, when Charlotte was nine her parents split and she took up piano. She was able to bang away at her mother’s house all she liked, until she felt ready to perform for her father. “He made me play in front of him and I remember I was quite proud,” she says, and I can hear a smile in her voice. “The music — that was part of what we experienced together. He was always very generous with his own projects, so he was always sharing what he was doing and wanting to have a… not a criticism, but feelings about each score he was doing. We had a piece of paper and we had to mark every song with stars. He was very modest, in a way, because he needed peoples’ impressions. That, we shared.”
The father-daughter act had their infamous public debut in 1985 with the song ‘Lemon Incest’, which had a film clip depicting the pair half-clothed lying on a bed, Charlotte’s breathless, out-of-tune vocals betraying her age. The song reached number two on the French charts in October of that year and remained there for four weeks, despite (or perhaps because of) its slightly suspect video and lyrics — “The love we’ll never make together is the most beautiful, the rarest, the most disconcerting.”
Charlotte has already explained countless times to many other people that she was aware the song was intentionally controversial — and that she was happy to play her part in it — so I don’t ask her about it. It was obviously just typical of Serge; he liked causing a stir — he was delighted when ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ was banned by the Vatican in the late sixties. Some of Serge’s best moments happened on national television and are now immortalised on YouTube, such as his awkward comment to a young Whitney Houston (“I want to fuck her”) and the time he burnt a 500 Franc note in protest against high taxes. The latter stunt didn’t go down to well for Serge or Charlotte — such perceived extravagance made Charlotte unpopular at school (apparently there are downsides to having Serge Gainsbourg as a dad).
So, did he offer any advice on how to cope with this bullying? “No,” she says emphatically. “You know, all my life, people thought that my father was a drug addict. I knew he wasn’t. I knew who he was. It was a different period. People were shocked by my mother posing naked in a magazine; they thought she was a whore. That wasn’t embarrassing. I was embarrassed by different things, like having to cope with him being just a little impolite with people because he was drunk. That was a little tougher. But I wasn’t embarrassed for the things people thought. Not at all.”
Charlotte’s bond with her father was so tenacious that when he died of a heart attack in 1991, she refused to release his body for burial, and instead sat by him for four days in his house. It’s morbid, to say the least, but the grief had made her numb and she lived blindly through each day as though it were all a bad dream. “People could have said that I was there for a month and it would have made sense. Time just stopped. I didn’t think about it. I feel that I’ve never gone through the real process of grieving with my father. It’s something that I’ve always tried to deal with but was never able to, so [I am] always putting it aside, and I still have a lot of work to do — that, I know. So, this thing of staying with him, it just was that I could not let go. Someone had to take me away.”
Serge’s house on rue de Verneuil in Paris looks just as it did when he died: every surface is covered with photographs, ashtrays, toys and clutter. “This is like a grave, but it’s a weird place. I mean, it’s not a weird place — I’m like Miss Havisham [of Great Expectations],” says Charlotte. “I kept the house exactly as it was. I can come in and think he is going to come out of the bathroom.” The house is Charlotte’s now. She doesn’t live there but has kept it running — the heating, the alarm, paying the bills — for 21 years. It is her sanctuary, but it is also a mausoleum.
“I don’t know what to with it. It’s a burden I have and it’s mine alone. People suffer from things much more difficult than this, but it’s true that I bought his house and everything inside thinking that I would make a museum out of his house. And then, after 18 years, I decided not to, because it was too much. I wasn’t being true to myself because I wanted to keep the house as secretive as I could. People knew everything about his life — I think that it is the only thing that I can keep to the family.”
Family is everything to Charlotte. Though her parents had some wild times, her life has been fairly low-key (or maybe she’s just good at kee-ping private things private). She met her partner, actor/director Yves Attal, when she was 19, and now has three children with him. They are, she says, both her greatest joy and her greatest weakness. “[Being a mother] is my main focus, in a good way and in a bad way too.”
She likes to take her children to the house on rue du Verneuil, as they never got to meet their grandfather. “It’s important for me that they see the house. Because I have this strange relationship to the house and to everything that was close to him, they can feel the weirdness too. But I hope they don’t get too much of it, I hope I protect them a little from my own madness because it’s not completely healthy… I mean, it’s not something I’m trying to hide from myself or that I feel embarrassed about. I do see there’s something that I haven’t dealt with, but it’s part of everybody’s process. Maybe I’ll never go through it. The fact that I’m conscious of it makes it alright, I guess.”
By now my diva theory has been completely quashed (and I’m not going to lie — I’m kind of disappointed). But Charlotte is obviously comfortable with fragility; it is part of her appeal. It’s in her lyrics, her vocals and has been fundamental to her best film roles. If Serge Gainsbourg is remembered for his prolific music career, reckless lifestyle and sense of humour, Charlotte believes her own legacy will be her work with director Lars von Trier. “I’m just very proud to be in his work. I’m not trying to be modest about it … Antichrist and Melancholia are films that I’m very proud of because of his vision. I think it’s very rare for an actor to be close to filmmakers that are real artists, that don’t make lots of compromises.”
Von Trier is notorious for his lack of compromise, often pushing his lead actresses to near–nervous breakdown — a mental state that frequently mirrors that of the characters they are playing. He shot the apocalyptic final scene of Melancholia so many times that Charlotte felt as though she was no longer acting. She has said that throughout filming he would tell her she was not suffering enough and that he wanted to see real tears. While this might sound like emotional torture, for Charlotte it is the kind of sacrifice you need to make in order to produce great art. In fact, the idea of suffering for art is second nature to Charlotte. Although her voice is gentle and her tone is light, there is an intensity about her that suggests she is at ease with life’s heavier moments — like sitting with her father for four days after his death.
I am surprised at how modest, even self-deprecating, she seems. Her music career, she insists, has come not from a place of entitlement, but rather one of exploration. “I don’t really know what direction I want to go, apart from finding something intimate. Because that’s the only thing I can do … be as close to me as I can, in the moment. I don’t have any message to tell.”
She says she gets stage fright when it comes to live performances, so I ask her if she feels comfortable watching herself in films. “I’ve always felt that sense of doubt doing films, and that never changed. I find myself critici-sing everything I’ve done — or that I’ve not done, that I can see is missing. So, I’m very critical, but that’s just the way I am.”
Despite the fact that she is an award-winning actress and the likes of Beck and Air have jumped at the chance to work with her, she does not sound insincere. I feel compelled to jump in and reassure her, but before I do she says, “I wish I wasn’t so critical, but it’s not as if I lament on what I’ve done — I can forget, which is great.” And in that moment I remember: she’s Charlotte Gainsbourg, she doesn’t need me to make her feel better about herself.
From our triple-cover April/May Music Issue on stands now.