A pregnant Charlotte Gainsbourg runs her fingers across her bump, which is encased in cashmere and discreetly wedged behind the table of a Paris hotel bar. She is trying to work out what her children might hate her for. Because to her, France’s most self-critical film star, it is obvious that they will hate her for something. “You always have so much to reproach your parents for,” she muses. “It’s normal. I can see already what my kids will have to blame me for. I prefer to anticipate the bad side rather than get a slap in the face later.”
Gainsbourg, 40, is fascinated by bad parents. “I like bad mothers,” she declares. What she means is she likes playing parental incompetents – hapless drifters or neglectful control-freaks – whom she can exorcise and give a happy ending. They realise their mistakes and scoop their damaged offspring into their arms.
Melancholia, Gainsbourg’s new film, and her second with the eccentric Danish auteur Lars von Trier, is an intergalactic end-of-the-world saga, which casts Charlotte Rampling as one of the most heinous, bitch-mothers ever seen on screen. Gainsbourg’s role as a controlling older sister trying to cope with a sibling’s depression did not have a bad-mother element in the script so she inserted one, teasing out the neurotic relationship with her on-screen young son. At one point, she tries to save the drowsy, pyjama-clad little boy from the end of the world by speeding him off in a golf-cart. “People’s faults are more interesting than their attributes,” she concludes.
All this leaves you wondering how much Gainsbourg hates her own parents. She is the daughter of Paris’s ultimate bohemians, Serge Gainsbourg, France’s biggest rock star poet and provocateur, and his muse, Jane Birkin, the actor and English rose. She remembers them returning from nightclubs just as she was leaving for school. She has hinted at the difficulty for any child of a father’s heavy drinking and parents’ divorce. But she insists she never hated them, and had a “very happy childhood”.
Since Gainsbourg’s death 20 years ago – at 62, his passion for Gitanes and alcohol finally led to a fatal heart attack – Charlotte has not been able to step out of his shadow. An actor and lately a singer, she has given up trying to shake off the Gainsbourg tag. But if France sees her as an eternal teenager, it also knows she has never really come to terms with her grief over her father’s death.
Yet she is repeating a familiar pattern with her own celebrity family. Married to the actor-director Yvan Attal – with whom she made the comedy My Wife is an Actress, playing on their real-life relationship – she is currently at the centre of a gossip-press fascination that echoes the showbiz reporters who followed her parents all over town. Over the past few years Gainsbourg has repeatedly sued French celebrity magazines over endless prying and speculation that her marriage was breaking down. The couple already had two children, Ben, 13, and Alice, 8, and her third pregnancy – the child was born in the summer – calmed the rumours but didn’t dim the Gainsbourg soap-opera spotlight.
Gainsbourg began as a child star, winning a top French acting award at 13 for her brilliant, bolshy performance in Claude Miller’s L’Effrontée. Hampered by shyness, she famously did interviews from a Champs Elysées office while sitting on the ground doing her maths homework, giving monosyllabic answers and lifting her eyes from the page only to look for her eraser. At 13, she recorded the song Lemon Incest with her father, complete with its video of them together on a bed. She has said she was thankful to be at boarding school when it was released, oblivious to the ensuing scandal.
More than 25 years on from her debut, Gainsbourg is still wary of interviews, which she brutally mocked in My Wife is an Actress. We meet in the ultimate Paris film-star setup: a Left Bank hotel bar not far from her apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. She is sitting at a table at the back, hidden behind a thick grey curtain, waiting for the day’s parade of one-to-one exchanges with English-speaking journalists. In a bid to jolt her out of the monotony, I ask if we can speak in French. Gainsbourg is perfectly bilingual, but in her typical self-deprecating style, she often says she doesn’t feel totally comfortable in English, that she lacks vocabulary. She spoke French at home – her father didn’t speak English and Jane Birkin didn’t want to create some kind of secret language for her and the kids. Gainsbourg’s strange and wonderful English accent – somewhere between PG Wodehouse and estuary – comes from coaching for one of her early films, The Cement Garden. She refuses to change this accent – even in Melancholia where her sister, Kirsten Dunst, is incongruously American.
Gainsbourg knows that interest in her always comes back to her parentage. “I’m proud of it,” she says. “But it’s a weight on me. I can’t ever behave as if I’m alone, as if my parents didn’t exist, because there will always be something that pulls me back to them.”
This year has been worse than most as France held massive commemorations of the 20th anniversary of her father’s death. Did she find any kind of happiness or comfort in the collective outpouring? Her brow furrows. “I wasn’t here. I deliberately left France. I was shooting a music video in Los Angeles and stayed away. It’s difficult for me. I’m very happy that people celebrate him, I think it’s great. But personally I can’t celebrate his death, it seems too bizarre.”
Her father’s house on Rue Verneuil in Paris is shuttered, preserved just as he left it. He painted the rooms black, had no mirrors that might reflect his reptilian features and organised his trinkets so methodically that he called the place a “museum”. Birkin once complained that she couldn’t touch anything in it. For 15 years Charlotte fought to the highest levels of the French state to get the house transformed into a museum. But she has now abandoned the project.
“[As a family] we shared everything, we gave everything – that was how he wanted it, people knew everything about his life, often the most intimate things. And I realised that this house was the only thing I could keep a bit secret, even if people do know what’s inside because there are so many photographs of it. I can’t go to his grave at Montparnasse cemetery, there are always people there. I can’t have a normal relationship with his burial place. So it’s become important for me to keep the house at Rue Verneuil. I know it’s bizarre. I’m keeping a ghost-house as if he’s still there. It’s pretty much just as he left it.”
So she goes there just to sit among his things? “Not too often, because it’s a bit painful. But it reassures me to know it’s there.”
I assume that she draws on her grief for her father in some of her performances. She shudders and shakes her head. “That was so personal, I could never draw on it as inspiration for anything else.”
Gainsbourg is caught up in the same battle over public and private persona that her father was. When in 2007 she had emergency, life-saving surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage after a water-skiing accident, she was afraid paparazzi at the hospital would see her looking wrecked with drips in her arm. When her father had his first heart attack in his early 40s, he was carried from his house on a stretcher but demanded paramedics fetch a cashmere rug from his bedroom as the regulation red-and-orange blanket clashed and photographers might be outside.
“My parents put us on show, we did a lot of family photos for newspapers. But the day they separated it got nasty,” she says. “Paparazzi were tracking us. We lived in a hotel with my mother while we were waiting for an apartment. Photographers were in the lift, or hiding in trees. It was a constant pursuit. I saw my mother react very fiercely, filing lawsuits. So I think it’s really thanks to her that I learned that you could protect yourself, that you had a right to a private life, that you didn’t have to show everything.”
It’s tempting to see shades of her father in Gainsbourg’s relationship with Von Trier. Melancholia is her second film with him after winning the Cannes award for best actress as the self-mutilating, bereaved mother in Antichrist. She admits that at first she was desperate to please the director, who is famous for his punishing emotional treatment of his female leads, and that she was flattered to be chosen to work for him again.
Then, at this year’s Cannes film festival, Gainsbourg was at a press conference for Melancholia with Von Trier when he said – purportedly in jest – that he sympathised with Adolf Hitler and was a Nazi. He was declared persona non grata by the festival and issued an apology, which he then retracted in an interview with GQ. Gainsbourg was accustomed to her father’s antics, burning cash on TV or making a reggae version of the French national anthem. But the Nazi jokes were extreme and deeply unpalatable to all at the conference, particularly since Serge Gainsbourg was the son of Russian Jews made to wear the yellow star in wartime Paris. Charlotte stayed quiet over the row, shying away from interviews at Cannes.
In Antichrist, Gainsbourg was the personification of Von Trier’s own depression. In Melancholia, Dunst takes on that persona; Gainsbourg’s role as the older sister is “more of a nurse”. Working with Von Trier is “extremely demanding”, she concedes. “They are not experiences that I find easy. But I’ve rarely had such a gratifying experience that gives you so much. It’s very pleasant to make yourself vulnerable when you trust the person who’s watching you.”
In any case, Von Trier could never torture Gainsbourg as much as she tortures herself. “I never approach a role in a relaxed, easy, happy way. It’s as if I’m always looking for shit, for what will make me feel bad.”
You would think Gainsbourg’s near death would have cured her of her self-flagellation. But no. She feels she’s “over” the brain haemorrhage chapter of her life. She appreciates things more, but she has returned to her default self-criticism, and is more than ever raddled with self-doubt.
“I see too much of myself that I don’t like. But that doesn’t mean I’m negative,” she says. “On balance, the things that I don’t like weigh more than the things I do like. I feel I’m very, very critical, but that’s normal. I’m happy when people say I’m good in a film. But to my eyes, I see a lot of mistakes, lots of things that could have been done differently. And I’m ambitious too. Which means it’s good to be disappointed in yourself because it allows you to do better and to aspire to something.”
The thing about Gainsbourg is that whatever the role, however wonderfully she acts, she’s not physically a chameleon: it’s still always her face, her features that you’re looking at, her father’s jaw, the boyish smile, the quirky look. Gainsbourg is sick of being complimented on how natural she looks on screen, so natural that she doesn’t look as if she’s acting.
“Natural is not what interests me. I want to act, to be inventive. When I see actors I admire, like Meryl Streep, who is one of the greats, she’s not natural. We don’t care if she’s natural but she brings across something – a madness, a fantasy – that’s what is interesting. Natural, it’s a good quality for an actor, but it’s not enough.”
Her PR pushes through the curtain that briefly cocooned us and Gainsbourg says goodbye, standing up and patting her bump. She must be so happy to be pregnant. “Yes,” she says, smiling. But then comes her impulse to temper things. “But I’m sad too, because it will probably be my last.”
Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian